After two years of bitter debate and emotional soul searching, Palo Alto officials on Monday passed a deeply divisive law that makes it illegal for people to live in vehicles.
Facing a hostile crowd of close to 100 people, the City Council voted 7-2 on Monday, with Marc Berman and Karen Holman dissenting, to join most other cities in the county in banning vehicle dwelling. The vote came after a prolonged debate that began in 2011, when the Police Department proposed the ban, and which climaxed Monday with more than 60 speakers urging the council not to pass the ban, which they characterized as an attack on the city's neediest residents. At the same time, the council heard from numerous residents of the nearby Greenmeadow neighborhood who pointed to the growing homeless population at Cubberley Community Center and said they no longer feel safe near their homes.
In passing the ban, members acknowledged the difficulty in finding a solution that works for everyone and emphasized that this quest is far from over. Councilwoman Liz Kniss called the decision the "hardest of balancing acts" and Councilwoman Gail Price called it "one of the most difficult votes" that she has had to work through during her time on the council.
Like others, she characterized the ban as a beginning and not the end of the city's effort to engage the homeless population. Price called the ordinance "an appropriate action at this moment, with the proviso that we will be looking at the next steps and will be looking at resources and productive ways to addressing this problem."
"It's not a local issue. It's a regional, county, state and national issue. This is one of the biggest social issues and social-justice issues that our nation faces."
But many in the Council Chambers didn't buy the explanations. Shouts of "Shame!" filled the chambers seconds after the vote, which came at around 11:30 p.m. after nearly four hours of discussion.
The controversy is far from new. When the Police Department proposed the ban on vehicle dwelling two years ago, the council balked at the idea and launched an outreach process involving the faith-based, business and homeless communities. Proposals included a program similar to one in Eugene, Ore., where homeless residents can register and receive spaces for their vehicles at participating churches.
That idea ultimately fizzled in Palo Alto after staff failed to find participants in the local faith-basd community. On Monday, council members maintained that they will continue to look for ways to provide support for the homeless by looking for resources to assist them.
Kniss challenged the faith-based community to come together and help put together a program to assist the city's neediest residents. But she also stressed the need to ensure safety in the neighborhoods around areas where homelessness has become a safety concern, particularly in Greenmeadow.
"We're attempting to take care of the needs of some of the neediest in our community and, at the same time we're trying to take care of the safety of those residents who live in this community ... If there's one thing the cities must do, we must provide for the safety to those people who live in this community," Kniss said.
Councilman Larry Klein agreed and highlighted the escalating situation at Cubberley, which City Manager James Keene had recently described as a "de facto homeless shelter." Klein said he visited Cubberley on Sunday night with Councilwoman Karen Holman and two members of the police department and counted 27 vehicles parked at the center between 10:30 and 11 p.m. Most were inhabited, he said. In addition, he counted about 15 people sleeping at Cubberley without the benefit of vehicles.
Like his colleagues, Klein underscored that the council's ordinance is the beginning of the city's changing policy, rather than the end. The effort must also include providing support to the homeless population, he said.
"We have an obligation to protect our neighborhoods," Klein said. "The dramatic increase in the homeless sleeping in their vehicles shows that we have inadvertently become a magnet. That has to come to an end."
The ban adopted by council Monday will kick in in 31 days and will include a six-month grace period. After that, the ban will be enforced on a complaint basis, with officers directing homeless residents to social-service providers. Violation of the ordinance could result in an infraction or, in the most serious cases, a misdemeanor (the determination will be at the city attorney's discretion). The most severe penalty would be a fine of $1,000, a penalty that is defined by state law, City Attorney Molly Stump said.
Acting Planning Director Aaron Aknin said the ordinance would give the city a new tool for engaging the homeless community and enforcing safety issues around Cubberley.
"The issue right now is that without effective tools there's not only not the tools there for enforcement, there's also not the tools there for engagement," Aknin said.
The council discussion followed more than two hours of public comments, with each speaker given one minute rather than the usual three because of the large number of participants. Opponents of the ban, some of whom came to the meeting from Santa Cruz and San Jose, characterized the law as a draconian attack on the city's neediest residents and an attempt to "criminalize" the homeless. Many urged the council to consider more compassionate solutions. In most cases, their comments were followed by applause and cheering, in violation of council protocols.
At one point, when a proponent of the ban finished speaking and a member of the audience interrupted from the stands, Scharff banged the gavel and implored the audience not to attack the speaker.
"You need to respect their right to free speech," Scharff said.
Another interruption came when speaker Darlene Gonzalez, who opposed the ban, tried to speak on behalf of another resident who couldn't attend the meeting. Scharff told her repeatedly that this is not allowed under the council's rules and she retreated from the microphone while many in the audience booed and one man screamed, "Shame!"
Many didn't buy the council's argument that the proposed ban is compassionate and that it will not criminalize homelessness.
"A stick is a stick, whether you're hitting someone with it or not," resident Mary Klein said. "We can choose a stick to force people out of their houses or we can try to come up with a carrot."
Resident Rachel Wright said the ordinance is an attack on the homeless that "discriminates against them on the sole basis of their financial situation."
"It dehumanizes them because it says you must stay invisible," Wright said. "Please do not vote for an unjust ordinance out of frustration."
Katie Fantin, of Vineyard Christian Partnership, also said she opposes the ban and encouraged the council to continue to look for alternative solutions.
"This ban simply doesn't solve the issues," Fantin said. "Give this community, who spoke so eloquently tonight, a chance to do something different."
Former Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell also weighed in against the ban, pointing out that it could lead to vehicle dwellers getting arrested and having their most precious possessions impounded. She invoked a quote from Coretta Scott King: "The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members, a heart of grace and a soul generated by love."
"There is no grace in this ban," Cordell said. "Only disgrace."
But residents who live near Cubberley had other concerns. Several pointed to recent incidents, including one in which one homeless man beat another into unconsciousness and another in which a homeless man threatened a police officer.
Zacki Baharov, a resident of Greenmeadow, showed the council photos of cars parked around Cubberley and personal items stored by the homeless at the community center. One photo depicted a van with boarded up windows parked near a portable bathroom at Cubberley, next to a playing field.
"Would you send your kid over to the bathroom with that over there?" Baharov asked.
Marc Marasco, who also lives in the neighborhood, agreed that there are safety issues around Cubberley for both the neighborhood residents and the homeless using the center.
"I really don't have an issue with a lot of the people who live there. We talk about dogs and things like that," Marasco said. "But there are some people who need help. I support any way we can get these people help and get our neighborhoods safe."
Yu-Shen Ng, who also lives near Cubberley, said he reluctantly supports the ban. The community center, he said, should not be a campground for the homeless.
"The fact is, we just don't feel safe anymore. ... We do need to have some support for the homeless but Cubberley itself is not untenable in its current state," Ng said.
These residents weren't the only ones to express concerns about the Cubberley situation. Klein said the council has received more than 30 emails from residents in the 48 hours before the meeting. Councilman Marc Berman agreed that the situation at Cubberley has "gotten to an untenable point."
"The safety concerns of neighborhoods and residents are serious and real and we have an obligation to try to address that situation and those concerns," Berman said.
Councilman Pat Burt proposed adding to the ban an amendment to put out a request for proposals for nonprofits for potential programs that could assist the homeless and to engage one or more neighboring city to participate. He also recommended that the city's Human Relations Commission take the lead in exploring this issue. His amendments ultimately died by a 3-6 vote, with only Berman and Holman joining Burt.
After Burt's amendment failed, Berman and Holman dissented from the majority vote. Berman noted that the council's Policy and Services Committee will discuss the city's strategy for outreach to the homeless at Cubberley on Aug. 13. He proposed waiting until after that discussion before considering the ban.
"There are other lesser steps, rather than a complete ban, that can be taken to address concerns residents have," Berman said.
Most of his colleagues, however, agreed that it's time to act. Burt echoed Klein in arguing that the city's status as one of the only cities in the region that doesn't have a ban on vehicle habitation creates a problem.
"If we have surrounding communities in the county that have one set of regulations and one commitment and we have a different one, that's a real struggle," Burt said.