Compassion and support for the downtrodden has always been an important part of the Palo Alto culture, but city leaders have done the community a disservice by allowing the problem of vehicle dwelling to languish for more than five years.
Spurred on this time by reports of increasing problems at Cubberley Community Center, which in the words of City Manager James Keene is becoming a "de facto homeless shelter," the City Council's Policy and Services Committee voted 2-1 last week to put an ordinance in front of the full council.
Vehicle dwelling, which is against the law in all neighboring communities, is one of those Palo Alto issues that seems to never reach a final resolution.
College Terrace residents tried to get the city to act back in 2008, as they saw first-hand the effects of there being no legal mechanism for preventing someone from deciding to park and spend the night in his or her car or camper directly in front of a home.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that many don't seem to think exists because they haven't personally experienced someone living in a car or camper parked in front of their house. But it is real and the scope of the problem seems to only be growing.
Over the last five years, the city has struggled to find a way to approach the issue in a way that would not simply rely on new laws, but respect and support people who had reached the point where their only place to sleep was in a vehicle.
In 2011, the city staff finally proposed an ordinance to ban sleeping in cars, but brought it to the City Council without outreach to the faith community or homeless advocates. Facing strong push-back from those who found the proposal heavy-handed and premature, City Manager Jim Keene pulled the proposal from the agenda and it disappeared again.
For the last two years, church leaders have explored whether there was enough interest and support for a system used in Eugene, Ore., where overnight vehicle-dwellers are allowed to use church parking lots and have access to bathrooms and other facilities.
The idea has all but fizzled out. After outreach to 42 faith-based organizations last year, only one church committed to the program as others ran up against strong neighborhood and liability concerns.
Last November, there was talk of a pilot program that would allow overnight dwellers to park their vehicles in designated city parking lots, but that too has gone nowhere, and the Cubberley experience suggests that is not a viable option.
City officials, including Police Chief Dennis Burns and Planning Director Curtis Williams, told the Policy and Services Committee last week about the growing homeless problem at Cubberley, including a steady increase in police calls. Burns said police had to respond to problems at Cubberley on 39 occasions last year, more than double the previous year.
Williams said that 20 to 30 people show up every evening, including five to 10 in vehicles, a "fairly significant increase in homeless dwelling at Cubberley." A manager in the city's Community Services Department, which has offices there, told the committee that there is more frequent drug use and fights and said that when custodians go to lock rooms up for the night they often find homeless people inside.
These reports and others were enough to convince the council committee that it's time for action. With Liz Kniss and Larry Klein supporting an ordinance, Gail Price opposing and Karen Holman absent, the matter will now go to the Council, though with unclear prospects.
Up until now most council members have taken a nuanced position on the problem and have emphasized providing support services rather than enacting a law similar to other cities.
Klein and Kniss said they endorse continuing to reach out to the homeless, but Klein, who has previously minimized the problem, now believes that the absence of a vehicle habitation ban may have contributed to making the city a magnet for homeless dwellers.
As we have advocated in earlier editorials, we strongly believe that an ordinance is needed to address this problem, along with stepped-up referrals to agencies that can provide assistance. It is not appropriate, fair or safe to openly permit people to live in their vehicles in a way that imposes on other residents of the community.
A tougher question is whether a ban should be limited only to vehicles in residential neighborhoods, at city parks and other facilities, or whether commercial and industrial areas should also be included.
It is hard to imagine the owners and tenants of offices or stores being any more accepting of a vehicle with someone living in it parked in front of their building than an occupant of a home or apartment.
As the years of delay in coming to a resolution of this issue suggests, there is neither a simple solution nor more ambitious ideas that have proven workable.
It's time to conform to what other cities have on their books and to equip our police with the legal tools they need to take action when vehicle dwellers create a problem for a resident or neighborhood.