Rob Schulze, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church on Middlefield Road, is well acquainted with Palo Alto's growing homelessness population.
In August, his church had hosted Hotel de Zink, a homeless shelter than rotates between area congregations every 30 days. The prior winter, it hosted Heart and Home, a program that provides shelter over a 45-day period.
Schulze said he was a bit surprised to learn during the recent Hotel de Zink experience that several residents have grown up in the city and had graduated from Palo Alto schools.
"Many have moved into the Palo Alto community over the last few years and many have grown up here, and that's where they are in their life stage right now," Schulze told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee on Tuesday night.
The committee's conversation focused on the latest proposal to address the city's growing homeless population: a "safe parking" program that would allow residents who live in vehicles to park overnight night at designated lots equipped with bathrooms and other amenities. The committee agreed Tuesday that the city should continue exploring such a program, both for public or private lots. The program would borrow elements from those that had recently been adopted in Mountain View and in East Palo Alto. In each case, the city is working with nonprofits to offer services and case management to people in the program.
While that process of hashing out the rules and identifying the proper site is expected to take months, the committee also recommended a more immediate fix: leaning on churches like Peninsula Bible Church to provide parking for vehicle dwellers.
By a unanimous vote, the committee directed staff to take a tiered approach to the creation of a "safe parking" program. First, the city will modify zoning rules to make it easier for local congregations to host up to four vehicles during the night. Concurrently, the city will discuss with large landowners (such as Stanford University) about using their parking lots (including ones at Stanford Research Park) for overnight parking.
The city will also continue to explore two publicly owned sites that staff had identified as potentially viable: an 0.9-acre lot at 2000 Geng Road, in the Baylands Athletic Center, and the former Los Altos Treatment Plant site at 1237 San Antonio Road.
Each site has its challenges. The 13.27-acre San Antonio site includes marshland, elevated fill and a 2.6-acre area that is currently used for storage by the city's trash hauler, GreenWaste. Given the prevalence of protected wetlands, the only part of the site that staff deemed available for a "safe parking" program is an 0.9-acre piece in the middle of the site, which happens to also include six former wastewater treatment ponds.
The Geng Road site, meanwhile, is adjacent to the Baylands Athletic Fields and local sports teams have been looking forward to seeing the site converted to sports fields. Neal Aronson, operations director for Palo Alto Soccer Club, told the committee that while his group wholeheartedly supports the "safe parking" effort, it would prefer to see the lot established elsewhere.
"We just don't think Geng Road is the right site," Aronson said. "There's a competing use that's been in planning for quite a while and we'd like to see ... the area dedicated to youth sports and youth playing fields."
While the debate over whether to use public land is expected to extend well into next year, the committee urged staff to move quickly on granting local congregations more leeway to launch their own programs. This could be achieved by changing the zoning code to designate parking lots for up to four vehicles as "incidental use" for local congregations.
By focusing on churches, Palo Alto is following in the footsteps of Mountain View, which has two churches currently participating in a "safe parking" program called Lots of Love.
Dave Arnone, a board member at Move Mountain View, a nonprofit that has helped churches set up "safe parking" programs in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, told the committee that his organization is ready to help Palo Alto launch its own program. Move MV has the needed funding and insurance to work with the city, he said. All it needs to find a case-management provider that can operate in Palo Alto.
Arnone urged Palo Alto leaders Tuesday to make it clear to local congregations that parking lots are an allowed use for housing vehicle dwellers overnight.
"I'd love to see safe parking happen in the churches," Arnone said. "The churches that are doing it feel like it's a pretty easy thing for them to do. Once the lots get up and operating, there's very little that's required of them."
Palo Alto's elected leaders agreed on Tuesday that relaxing rules for churches is the easiest thing to do in the near term. They also agreed that for the program to succeed, the city will need to do extensive outreach to residents in areas where the program would be established. Neighbors should be sufficiently notified so that they wouldn't be surprised if an RV parking lot is planned near their homes, Councilman Greg Tanaka said.
This isn't the first time Palo Alto's elected officials are looking to churches for answers. In 2012, the city reached out to dozens of local churches to explore a possible vehicle-dwelling program and only First Presbyterian Church agreed to participate. Committee Chair Liz Kniss recalled at the Tuesday meeting that the program quickly fizzled under opposition from nearby residents.
"I think we'll have to get very creative with finding a parking lot that doesn't in some way impact the neighbors," Kniss said. "That' what happened previously. The neighbors began by being comfortable and after a few weeks of it—it didn't work for that particular situation."
The idea of exploring a "safe parking" program came out of a memo that was drafted in June by council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou. The memo notes the recent rise in Santa Clara County's homeless population, which according to a recent census increased by 31% between January 2017 and January 2019.
"We don't know who lives in the vehicles now, but certainly we want to make sure families are addressed, especially people with children. And of course, there are people who are sick and (there are) seniors," Kou said Tuesday. "But the goal is to move them toward more stable housing."
The council is also hoping to address a barrage of citizen complaints about RVs parking along El Camino Real and inside the neighborhoods. The city's Police Department has logged 1,500 complaints annually for abandoned vehicles, with the list of concerns including sanitation, safety, parking impacts, blight and impaired visibility due to RV. Some of these vehicles may be used for habitation for individuals and families, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The department had also surveyed the streets on Aug. 13 and saw 126 motor homes, recreational vehicles or conversion vans on city streets, the report states.
Staff noted that people live in vehicles for a variety of reasons, including rent increases, sudden life events that lead to financial challenges or job opportunities that prompt people who live far from the area to sleep in their cars rather than make the long commute home.
Despite the city's shaky record with "safe parking" for vehicle dwellers, some residents urged the committee to give the program another shot. Resident Winter Dellenbach noted that even if the city is able to identify space for a few dozen vehicles, that would amount to helping about a quarter of the city's vehicle dwellers based on the police survey.
"This isn't just another thing we can do. This is another thing we desperately need to do because these people desperately need to have safe harbor for them to live in their dwellings," Dellenbach said.