Palo Alto's Policy and Services Committee voted on Tuesday night to move forward an ordinance that would ban vehicle dwelling in the city, despite fierce resistance from many of the more than 60 residents who filled the Council Chambers.
After public comment from 25 residents, 23 of whom opposed the ordinance, the committee voted 3-0, with Councilwoman Karen Holman absent, to approve a staff recommendation that would give the police an enforcement tool to control vehicle dwelling in Palo Alto.
In a manner that staff referred to as "empathetic and thorough," police would enforce the ordinance using a "a robust notification program through media and fliers to known vehicle dwellers" and personal outreach with the city's social services partners.
The department would allow for 60 days of "education, outreach and transition" and for 30 days after that period would give warnings.
Staff stressed that generally officers would not initiate contact with people who are living in cars and would instead primarily respond to resident complaints for violations of the ordinance.
The proposal met outcries from the public, who criticized it for being an overly broad ban that's ripe for abuse and would send the city down the road of criminalizing homelessness, unfairly penalizing those vehicle dwellers who don't cause problems.
The ban defines "human habitation" as "the use of a vehicle for a dwelling place, including but not limited to, sleeping, eating and resting, either single or in groups."
Some who spoke Tuesday night, George Mills of Palo Alto Friends Meeting, felt that the definition's inclusive nature could lead to it being exploited down the road.
"People come and go, but laws stay on the books," he said. "We should think about how this law will be enforced 20 years from now."
City Attorney Molly Stump countered these comments, saying the operative word in the ordinance is "dwelling," meaning that it's used as a home. A resident using a car while eating a meal or for a nap "would in no way be considered by a judge, jury or police officer to be (using it) as a dwelling."
Resident Jeff Browning worried that the ordinance would take a step toward criminalizing homelessness, which he said he believes will continue to grow in the area.
Vehicles "are sometimes a final refuge for children and women at risk for sexual assault or battery," he said. "This isn't a way to help the situation."
Roberta Ahlquist, who volunteers at the Food Closet and knows some of the vehicle dwellers who would be affected by the ordinance, echoed his concerns, saying many of the vehicle dwellers are entire families.
"This ban is a criminalization of those less fortunate than us," she said. "We need to look more deeply as to how the city as a community can solve this problem.
Police Chief Dennis Burns said that in 2010, police had been summoned to Cubberley Community Center, where vehicle dwellers often camp, for complaints involving the homeless 10 times. The number went up to 16 in 2011 and to 39 last year. So far this year, police have made 12 contacts with homeless at Cubberley.
Last week, police arrested Marcelo Martinez, a 23-year-old homeless man, at Cubberley for beating another man with his fists until the man lost consciousness.
Mark Marrasco, who lives near the community center, was one of the two who spoke in support of the ordinance. He said he's concerned about the safety of children who play in the area and said the "ordinance isn't perfect, but it's a step in the right direction."
While detractors of the ordinance were well represented at the meeting, Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she would have liked to have heard from more supporters of the ordinance like Marrasco, from whom she said she received "a whole stack of emails."
Kniss said that Palo Alto and its social services partners provide excellent services to the homeless and acknowledged their continuing needs but said that the city also has to protect residents who have said they feel uncomfortable about the situation.
"If we have no tool to work to address the problem, then we haven't treated the issue fairly," she said.
Councilman Larry Klein said he was struck that none of the speakers mentioned that Palo Alto is the only local jurisdiction without an ordinance. He said he worried about Palo Alto becoming a vehicle-dwelling magnet if it didn't have any laws enforcing it.
"We're not striking into new territory here," he said, noting that counties, and not cities, are generally tasked with implementing social-welfare programs. "We're plugging a hole. ... We need a regional solution. Palo Alto is not the answer."
Councilwoman Gail Price, who in May voted against resurrecting the effort to craft a vehicle-dwelling ban, said she had made "a difficult shift" in her opinion on the matter.
She said she agreed with her colleagues in that the issue of homelessness is broader than Palo Alto, instead calling it "a discussion of the inequities in our society."
"Are we really doing them a favor when what they really need is intensive help and referral to support services?" she said. "If we don't focus on increasing support services, we're failing everyone."
If approved by the council, the ordinance's 60-day outreach period would begin in October, with the 30-day warning period beginning in December.