Responding to a growing population of vehicle dwellers on neighborhood streets, Palo Alto on Monday became the latest Peninsula city to launch a "safe parking" program for residents without homes.
By a unanimous vote, the council agreed to let local churches designate up to four spaces on their lots for car campers. Much like in similarly established programs in East Palo Alto and Mountain View, participants will partner with social service providers who will assist users of the program in finding permanent housing.
Compared to the other programs, Palo Alto's will be relatively modest both in scale and in ambition. Staff and council members openly acknowledged Monday that the program will not address the underlying problem: a housing crisis that has forced some households to rely on cars for shelter. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said Monday that addressing the issue of homelessness will require a "multipronged approach."
"Even with an effective and successful safe parking program, people will remain homeless and dwelling in their vehicles in Palo Alto," Lait said.
The council also agreed, however, that having a safe place to park could make a huge difference for a person or a family that has temporarily fallen on hard times. Last spring, Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou authored a memo advocating for a "safe parking" program. Their proposals included looking at large city-owned sites and exploring the willingness of commercial property owners to let vehicle dwellers park on their lots.
"The City of Palo Alto must address this matter from a health and safety standpoint," the memo stated. "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 Monday doesn't go nearly as far as the memo recommended. Rather, it limits safe parking to religious institutions, places a limit of four cars per lot, and creates a set of conditions that participants have to meet, including a provision of bathrooms with toilets and sinks and maintenance of "clear and orderly premises." Hours of operations will be limited to 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
While the council unanimously supported the new program, members had significant disagreements about some of the details. One issue of contention was notification requirements. Councilman Greg Tanaka argued that the city should notify neighbors within 600 feet of the proposed safe parking site.
"If we do this and surprise people, people will be upset," Tanaka said. "It will stall the process for doing something bigger than this."
DuBois suggested that given the small size of the program, notifying immediate neighbors would suffice. Some council members, including Mayor Adrian Fine, recommended a compromise: 300 feet. Ultimately, the council voted 4-3, with DuBois, Kou and Fine dissenting, to adopt the 600-foot standard.
DuBois also urged his colleagues not to limit the program to religious institutions. The proposed program, he said, "is far less than what we proposed in our colleagues' memo and it doesn't do nearly enough."
"And I'm concerned it creates restrictions through the permitting process and has some unrealistic timelines," DuBois said.
The Policy and Services Committee had recommended a 90-day limit on safe-parking permits. Limiting the program to just three months, the committee reasoned, would give the city a chance to test the waters before establishing the program on a long-term basis.
But planning staff argued that the restriction can actually harm the program. A report from the Department of Planning and Development Services noted that program operators and congregations "expressed dismay that the permit would be reduced to only 90 days."
"The uncertainty may prevent them from entering into contractual agreements with safe parking program operators," the report states. "Likewise, the uncertainty may deter congregations or program operator may not make necessary investments to begin the program. Finally, donors and grantors may be reluctant to provide support for the operators or congregations."
The council agreed on Monday to get rid of the 90-day requirement and, under DuBois' urging, set the pilot program at 18 months. His colleagues declined, however, to issue any explicit directions to staff for expanding the program, including exploring a program for participants that aren't religious institutions and for those that can accommodate more than four vehicles. DuBois' proposal to include these instructions was shot down by a 3-4 vote, with only Kou and Councilman Eric Filseth joining him.
Some urged the council to go further. Resident Trina Lovercheck noted that many church lots can accommodate far more than four vehicles.
"If religious institutions have to go to the expense of putting in toilets and a sink, that's a big commitment on their part," Lovercheck told the council. "For it to only accommodate four people seems to me to be a waste."
But Rob Schulze, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, said that members of his church's congregation have expressed a preference for a four-car limit, as well as for passenger vehicles over RVs. That said, he said his church looks forward to seeing how the program unfolds.
"As a congregation, we're open to what this would look like," Schulze said.
His church isn't the only one preparing to welcome vehicle dwellers. Several members of Congregation Etz Chayim, a synagogue on Alma Street, submitted letters and attended the Monday meeting to speak in favor of the program.
"A severe lack of housing for working people in our community has forced people to sleep in their vehicles in unsafe conditions," wrote Sara Selis. "I and fellow members of congregation Etz Chayim support the city's trial program for overnight safe parking at congregations linked to social services to move people into permanent housing."
Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky of Etz Chayim also signaled his support and wrote to the council that he hopes his congregation "will be able to be a part of this program."
Despite their narrow disagreements, council members generally shared the consensus that the safe-parking program is overdue. Councilwoman Alison Cormack called it disappointing that it has taken the city this long to launch such a program. While some supporters of the program described it as a "Band-Aid," Cormack suggested that this undersells the program's significance.
"I think it's more than a Band-Aid; I think it's a helping hand," Cormack said.