With Palo Alto's homeless population on the rise, city leaders are looking at two publicly owned sites near the Baylands as possible locations for a new "safe parking" program aimed at vehicle dwellers.
At the same time, city staff are warning that even if such a program were to overcome space limitations, financial constraints and political challenges, it would only accommodate a small fraction of Palo Alto's homeless population, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The proposal, which the City Council's Policy and Services Committee is set to take up on Tuesday, considers two sites for the parking program: a parking lot next to the Baylands Athletic Fields at 2000 Geng Road and a site at 1237 San Antonio Road, which housed the Los Altos Wastewater Treatment Plant between 1958 and 1972. At either location, the program would be able to accommodate between two dozen and three dozen households, according to a staff analysis.
In exploring a "safe parking" program, Palo Alto is joining a growing list of cities seeking to support homeless residents. Mountain View and East Palo Alto recently partnered with nonprofit organizations to launch such programs. Morgan Hill boasts one site for eight vehicles at a local church, while San Jose dedicates three city-owned lots, which collectively accommodate 65 vehicles, according to a survey by Palo Alto staff.
In Palo Alto, the question of what, if anything, the city should do about vehicle dwellers has grown both more challenging and more urgent as the number of homeless people has gone up. According to the 2019 Santa Clara Homeless Census & Survey, the county's homeless population has increased by 31% since 2017 and now stands at about 9,706.
Palo Alto's homeless population increased by 13% since 2017, for a total of 313 persons, according to the biennial count, which was undertaken in January. Of those, 299 are not in shelter, such as hotels, according to the report from city planners.
Council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou cited the growing population of vehicle dwellers in a June 10 memo that made the case for launching a "safe parking" program. The ultimate goal would be to "provide assistance to people to get them back on the path to stable housing."
"RVs and other vehicles can be found on main thoroughfares and quiet residential streets for extended periods of time," the memo states. "The City of Palo Alto must address this matter from a health and safety standpoint. The effort must be made to find immediate short- and long-term solutions."
The memo directed staff to discuss a possible program with area nonprofits, including Project WeHope (which helps administer the East Palo Alto program) and LifeMoves (which is involved in the San Jose program), as well as to identify large commercial sites on Bayshore Road and in the Stanford Research Park that can potentially house managed overnight programs.
Some programs, including ones in Mountain View and Morgan Hill, are relying on church lots for space. In Palo Alto, however, staff believe such a program could face resistance from residents. The city had previously investigated the possibility of congregations hosting such programs, the report notes.Ultimately, one congregation volunteered, while a few that had previously been interested declined due to opposition from their neighbors, according to the report.
Given the challenges of establishing programs at local churches, Palo Alto is now eying more remote locations. The 13.27-acre site at 1237 San Antonio Road, just east of U.S. Highway 101, represents one opportunity. Once the site of a wastewater plant, the area was more recently considered as a possible location for a new animal shelter (the city last year shelved that idea and is now focusing on upgrading the existing shelter on East Bayshore Road).
The San Antonio site wouldn't be ready to accommodate a parking program in the near future, according to staff. The northernmost 4 acres of the parcel consist of marshland and elevated fill. The southernmost 2.6 acres are being leased to utility contractors for storage and to GreenWaste, the city's trash hauler.
The middle portion could be used for parking but includes six former wastewater treatment ponds and dedicated wetlands. This leaves about 1 acre of space for a possible program, enough to accommodate between 25 and 35 vehicles, according to the staff report.
Though the site's secluded location limits potential conflict with neighbors, the report states, "that characteristic may also make the location feel unwelcoming for participants."
The Geng Road site adjacent to the Baylands Athletic Fields represents another opportunity. It is already served by utilities, the report states, and the parking program's hours of operation (generally, evening to morning) make it unlikely that there will be significant overlap between people who rely on the parking program and those who use the fields. Even so, the report notes that users of athletic fields "may voice concerns about the proximity of the site to the fields."
The political challenge of instituting "safe parking" programs was underscored in Sacramento last week, when state lawmakers modified Assembly Bill 302, a proposal by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, that would require community colleges to provide overnight parking for homeless students. The amendments, which the Senate committee made on Aug. 30, include a delay of the program's commencement from April 2020 to July 2021 and an exemption for community colleges within 250 feet of elementary schools.
Berman sharply criticized these changes on Tuesday and agreed to make AB 302 a "two-year bill," which effectively keeps the Legislature from adopting it this year.
In a statement, he acknowledged that the AB 302 is "neither a permanent nor a perfect solution," but argued that in its prior form, it would have "provided meaningful security for thousands of homeless community college students whose only reliable shelter is their car."
Berman also criticized the proposed exemption for community colleges near elementary schools, saying it would discourage students from seeking help.
"Homeless students are not pedophiles that need to be kept away from children," Berman said in a statement. "They are men and women — many of them barely adults themselves — who are trying to improve their lives by obtaining a better education."
In Palo Alto, residents have complained for years about the growing number of recreational vehicles parked along El Camino Real and, in some cases, in residential neighborhoods. In 2013, the council responded to the resident complaints by adopting a ban on vehicle dwelling. It rescinded the ban several months later, after a similar law in Los Angeles was deemed in violation of the Constitution.
The problem appears to have gotten worse since then. The percentage of homeless people living in their vehicles in Santa Clara County has more than doubled in the past two years, according to the homeless census.
Last year, the Palo Alto police stepped up their enforcement of the 72-hour parking restriction on El Camino. In July 2018, the department marked 75 such vehicles, according to the report. In December, it marked an additional 62 vehicles.
As a result of these activities on El Camino Real, the police department believes that the truly "abandoned" vehicles have all been towed and any remaining vehicles are being actively driven, as required by law, the report states.
The report notes that people have different reasons for living in their cars. Factors include the high cost of housing, life events that lead to financial challenges and a preference by some employees who don't live in the area to sleep in an RV rather than endure long commutes.
In July, the Weekly talked to some RV dwellers on El Camino, finding some people using it as a means of survival, while others said it fit their lifestyle. In one case, a family of 10 shared a camper and liked the proximity to Stanford Medical Center, where one family member is being treated for a kidney condition. Another RV was occupied by a delivery driver who makes the 175-mile trip back home to Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County to see his family several times a month.