Facing a growing population of vehicle dwellers, a Palo Alto City Council committee signaled support Tuesday for a new program that would lean on religious institutions to provide overnight parking for those without homes.
The new program, which was first proposed in June by council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou, took a step forward on Tuesday night, when the City Council's Policy and Services Committee threw its unanimous support behind it. The committee also agreed, however, that given the potential backlash from residents who live near the participating churches, the city should tread cautiously and only keep the program in place for three months.
The three committee members, Chairwoman Liz Kniss, Councilman Greg Tanaka and Kou, all supported jumpstarting the program, which would be similar to ones recently rolled out in East Palo Alto and Mountain View. Much like in those cities, Palo Alto's program would partner participants in the program with case management services that would help them find permanent housing.
The idea for a "safe parking" program was sparked by a recent growth in the number of recreational vehicles parking on local thoroughfares and neighborhood streets, according to the memo from DuBois and Kou.
"The City of Palo Alto must address this matter from a health and safety standpoint," the memo states. "The effort must be made to find immediate short- and long-term solutions. The ultimate goal is to provide assistance to people to get them back on the path to stable housing."
The program approved by the committee would allow a local religious institution to provide space for up to four vehicles on their lots. The memo also recommended considering a more ambitious program that would allow five or more vehicles on private properties. It also suggested looking at two city-owned sites at 2000 Geng Road, near the Baylands, and at 1237 San Antonio Road, the former Los Altos Water Treatment Plant, as potential sites for sheltering vehicle dwellers. Those programs are currently being evaluated and will return to the council at a future date.
The "safe parking" program, meanwhile, could be implemented as soon as early next year. If approved by the full council, vehicles with permits would be able to park at participating congregations between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. There would be "quiet hours" between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. during which time music and other noise that exceeds the city's noise ordinance would be prohibited. Providers would be required to provide participants with access to restrooms that include a toilet and a sink (showers are highly recommended but not required).
While the committee generally supported the rules drafted by staff, members urged both more caution and greater outreach to residents. Rather than making this an 18-month pilot program, the committee agreed to make it a three-month program, along the lines of what Mountain View approved. And rather than informing only immediate neighbors about an application for a "safe parking" program, as proposed by staff, the committee recommended a broader notification requirement to avoid surprising the neighborhood.
In formulating its recommendation, the committee was mindful of the city's first brush with a church-based program in 2012. At that time, only one church stepped up to participate and the program was scuttled under pressure from area residents.
The Tuesday meeting offered some signs that the city may have better luck this time around. Representatives from two local congregations offered to work with the city on providing parking for vehicle dwellers on their lots. David Bergen, a member of Congregation Etz Chayim, a synagogue in south Palo Alto on Alma Street, told the committee that the congregation's board of directors at Etz Chayim is interested in receiving a proposal from the city about the new program.
"We have a very large parking lot and it is empty at night and there are people in need," Bergen said.
David Haley, a pastor at Palo Alto Church of Christ, a non-denominational congregation on Middlefield Road, said his church would also like to participate in the new program. He lauded the approach championed by the nonprofit Move Mountain View, which combines a provision of parking spots with case management.
"This isn't just a place to park. This is an access point to resources," Haley said. "What I love is that this is something that brings congregations together, instead of each of us just doing our own thing."
Haley acknowledged, however, that the city will likely hear from residents with different views, including those who oppose having vehicle dwellers close their homes. He argued that there would be a low impact on a neighborhood of having four cars parking at a church lot overnight.
The committee largely agreed, though its members emphasized the need to get residents on board. Tanaka alluded to the "outcry" over the council's prior attempt and suggested that the new program allow the city to quickly revoke permits of congregations where the program is causing unwanted impacts.
"If this program is successful, there probably won't be much rejection," Tanaka said. "But to head off people's objections, it's important to make it as palatable as possible."
To underscore the severity of the problem, the committee supported moving ahead with an "urgency ordinance" to start the program, obviating the need for a review from the Planning and Transportation Commission. The law is slated to go to the council for approval in January and the program could take effect within 45 days of adoption.
While the urgency ordinance is in place, the Planning and Transportation Commission would move ahead with evaluating a longer-term program. The committee supported this two-pronged approach, despite Tanaka's request that both parts of the safe-parking program move forward through the ordinary zoning process, with review by the planning commission before the council's approval.
Tanaka suggested that sending the plan to the planning commission will give residents another venue to offer input on the program. Kniss and Kou both said they prefer to go with the staff recommendation for expediency.
"I'm sure the faith-based organizations will do their outreach as well, and communicate with their neighbors," Kou said.