Acknowledging a shift in the legal landscape, Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday night to repeal the city's controversial ban on car camping.
By an 7-1 vote, with Councilman Larry Klein dissenting and Councilwoman Karen Holman absent, the City Council voted to repeal the ban on vehicle habitation that it adopted in August 2013 in response to complaints from residents about people sleeping in cars and occasionally causing disturbances in front of their homes.
The council adopted in the face of vehement criticism from homeless advocates, vehicle dwellers and attorneys who argued that the ban is unconstitutional. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit struck down a similar law in Los Angeles, placing Palo Alto's newly adopted ban on a shakier legal footing.
Before striking down the ban, the council heard from several residents who live in vehicles. Each asked the council to eliminate the law, which would leave them subject to fines. Oliver Terry, who currently lives in a van with his mother and who is studying to be a dental hygienist at Foothill College, said he is doing everything he can to get out of his current situation, furthering his education and working with the Downtown Streets Team.
"I just don't want this whole vehicle-dwelling thing to put a mark on my legal record and offset my entire life," Terry said.
Diane Elizabeth Jones said both she and her son have been vehicle dwellers, a fact that did not stop her son from going to college.
"This winter we have no winter shelter," Jones said. "We will freeze in our vehicle. But we would die without a vehicle. And without a vehicle we lose our place to sleep safely."
City Attorney Molly Stump characterized the council's decision as one that requires the council "to weigh policy issues with strongly held views on both sides."
Yet only one side showed up Monday night. Every member of the public who spoke on the subject urged the council to repeal the ban. Wayne Douglass, who ran for the City Council this year with the sole focus of fighting the car-camping ban and bringing attention to the homeless community, didn't mince words in articulating his feelings about the car-camping ban.
"If you need help in killing this ordinance, I'd cheerfully drive a stake through its heart when you're done," Douglass said.
As it turned out, the council didn't need much help. With the exception of Klein, members had few reservations about striking down the ban, which has been suspended pending the Desertrain vs. Los Angeles case and has never been enforced. City Manager James Keene joined Stump in recommending the repeal.
Councilwoman Gail Price, one of the council's leading proponent of providing more social services to the homeless, called the process "extremely challenging" because of the large number of different stakeholders and interests. But she was quick to support Councilman Marc Berman's motion to repeal the ban.
"I feel it's an honor to second this motion," Price said. "This is the right thing to do and this is the compassionate thing to do."
Berman said that "regardless of whether or not you disagree with merits of the ordinance," it's important to recognize that "the legal landscape has changed dramatically and enforcing the ordinance would lead to a large waste of money by the city." The end result, he said, should be the repeal.
He also pointed to the "one good thing" that has come out of the ordinance: the discussion that the city had about homeless issues. In adopting the ban, the council allocated $250,000 for housing and case management for homeless residents.
On Monday night, the council supported a request by Price to schedule a discussion at a future meeting in which the council would direct staff to explore other partnerships and programs to support the homeless.
Klein wasn't convinced that the ordinance should be scrapped entirely. It's not rare for the city to be threatened with lawsuits, he said, and the city's record in defending its laws is pretty good. Though he said he supports "to some degree" having additional programs for people who need housing, this is not the city's responsibility but Santa Clara County's.
"The social welfare agency in our area is the county, not the city," Klein said. "That's not where our money should be going. To think we can solve the homeless problem just doesn't make sense. I don't think we should take the lead in abolishing this ordinance."
His colleagues, however, voted for appeal, even as some acknowledged the reports they have long been receiving from residents about vehicle dwellers occasionally causing disturbances. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss found it puzzling that none of the people who pushed for the car-camping ban showed up at the meeting.
"We really want to be humanitarian. We really want to support those who are homeless," Kniss said. "At the same time, some people feel very uncomfortable with the entire issue."