One of Palo Alto's most colorful characters, Victor Frost, has died, according to the San Mateo County Coroner. Frost, who was well-known for sitting on his milk crate across from Whole Foods Market on Homer Avenue and waiting for spare change, died of natural causes on Feb. 12, the coroner's office said. He was 68.
The portly panhandler, with his irascible nature, challenged Palo Alto's sit-lie ordinance on Constitutional grounds. He also ran for Palo Alto City Council during every election for a decade, except in 2012. To be eligible to run for city office, Frost needed a Palo Alto address, so he listed a telephone pole, No. 1139, at Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard. He was never elected.
Born Victor Allen Frost, he grew up in East Palo Alto and Seaside, California, near Monterey, he once said during a conversation at one of his other panhandling spots. During a City Council campaign, he told the Weekly that when he was 9 years old, he moved to Palo Alto after his parents died in a vehicle accident, and he grew up in area group homes.
He often said he used to work for Sun Microsystems, and in the early days of his panhandling he displayed a sign asking for donations to upgrade his laptop computer.
Frost often put out signs asking for 26 cents to help feed needy children at his apartment complex.
Eileen Richardson, executive director of the Downtown Streets Team, spent much time with Frost, during which he revealed his panhandling strategy when asking for 26 cents.
"I always cracked up. He said that people usually didn't have a penny, so they had to give him 50 cents or a quarter," she said.
Despite his reputation for surliness, Frost definitely had a nice side, she added, noting the time he surprised her on Valentine's Day.
"He gave me a brown paper bag, and inside there were chocolates and flowers and a beautiful card. It was really, really kind. He definitely had that side, without a doubt. I think it was because I was one of the only people who spent a lot of time getting to know him," she said.
"I think he was highly intelligent, without a doubt. I think he just wanted to be accepted by people. It's hard to do that when you can't hold a job," she said.
Richardson spent 1 1/2 years -- at least three times a week, and often more -- sitting with Frost at his spot and trying to figure out ways to get him into housing. She offered him a spot on the Downtown Streets Team and opportunities to write about homelessness for its website, and he was given a chance to apply to work at Whole Foods. He wanted a goat farm, so Richardson said maybe they could raise money for that.
But Frost didn't want any of it.
One day he said he was going to sue the city and Whole Foods, and that's when Richardson gave up, she said.
"It was definitely a learning experience for me. I can be stubborn. I thought if I worked hard enough, I could get him into housing," she said.
In 2007, he lived for a short time at the Opportunity Center's apartments, but the stay there was allegedly rocky. Eventually, he was able to move into a subsidized apartment in Redwood City. Frost died in that apartment.
Richardson said a that being housed there probably saved his life. If he had continued to live on the street, he would have died years ago.
Frost suffered from congestive heart failure, and he had schizophrenia, which he controlled by taking medication, he once revealed to the Palo Alto Weekly.
But despite his disabilities, he was an energetic fighter. Tall and large with long, flowing yellowish-white hair and a bushy beard, he was an imposing figure who allegedly would argue with others who tried to utilize his panhandling spot.
But in many ways he was also a highly creative thinker. He argued in court with the help of his defense attorney that the city's sit-lie ordinance violated his First Amendment rights and the state's equal-protection clause because it was applied unevenly and against a particular class of people. The city was enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner when it allowed, without proper permits, restaurants' outside seating to encroach on sidewalks, he said during hearings on a misdemeanor charge for chronically violating the city's sit-lie law. He incurred 11 citations between 2008 and 2010.
That fight went on for three years.
Then-Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Lucy Koh agreed to hear arguments on his assertions prior to his trial, and she even raised concerns about aspects of his discrimination claim. But Frost eventually lost his cases. He was fined $50 for a single violation in 2011 -- but not before a jury deadlocked during a previous trial in 2010.
Frost was disappointed that he didn't have a clear victory.
"I can't have the victory barbecue that I wanted," he said at the time.
When he wasn't panhandling, Frost would occasionally disappear to the Sierra foothills, where he said he had a gold claim. But if it turned any profit, it did not show in Frost's life. He always returned to Palo Alto, and he continued to pursue his goal of suing the city so he could retire from panhandling.
"I want my goat ranch in northern California, 5 acres, a log cabin -- and a nice wife," Frost said when he started his fight in 2007.
He never struck the Mother Lode. Still, he never gave up. In the weeks before he died, Frost was still on his milk crate -- this time, at one of his alternative spots in the California Avenue business district. In addition to Whole Foods, he sometimes set up shop in front of Village Stationers on California Avenue or near the Cambridge Avenue parking lot of Mollie Stone's market. It was at the latter site that he last discussed his belief that he would ultimately prevail on his First Amendment claim. He said then that he would soon be filing additional papers in federal court challenging the sit-lie ordinance.
Richardson said that he was seen less often in recent months, and his death made her sad.
"I'm hoping these last years were happy for him," she said.
She did not know if there would be a memorial service for Frost.