No one in Palo Alto, our neighboring cities or throughout most of California is unaware of the disturbing rise in homelessness. It stares us in the face as we walk downtown, visit parks and, in recent years, drive on El Camino Real and many other city streets.
The latest and growing form of homelessness — people who are living out of cars and RVs and are generally employed but unable to afford housing — is a group that cities are focusing increasing attention on because helping them actually seems within reach.
At the urging of City Council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou, the Palo Alto City Council finally set in motion Monday night a very modest program to allow local churches and temples to host up to four vehicles in their unused parking lots each night. Several churches have stepped forward to support such a program and by unanimous vote the council approved it.
The city of Palo Alto has thus far done little to assist the community's unhoused population, so Monday night's action, minimal as it was, is at least a start. The 18-month pilot program will require churches to obtain a permit from the city, provide toilet facilities and sinks, limit the hours of operation to between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. (cars and RVs would need to leave the lot by 8 a.m. every morning).
It is expected that each participating church would contract with a designated nonprofit agency to manage its program and participate in a county monitoring program. Case management services must also be provided to program participants to help them transition to permanent housing. Prior to issuing a permit, the city will notify all neighbors within a 600-foot radius and provide them the opportunity to appeal the issuance of a permit to the council. To require all these steps for a church to host just four vehicles on its private property is excessive and, we fear, jeopardizes the well-intentioned effort.
No one believes Palo Alto's pilot program will solve, or even significantly reduce, the number of people sleeping in vehicles on city streets. But concern over potential negative reactions of church neighbors led a council majority to only support a plan that will, at best, help only a handful of unhoused people and, at worst, never get off the ground.
A better program would have allowed more than four vehicles per church and opened the program to the property owners of commercial parking lots. It also would have directed the city staff to include a city-owned parking lot that could accept more vehicles and experiment with 24-hour operation.
While communities throughout California are trying to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis of homelessness, it is disappointing that it has taken Palo Alto almost a year to adopt a watered-down version of the initiative proposed by DuBois and Kou last March.
By contrast, Gov. Gavin Newsom is treating the problem as a public health emergency. He has spent the last week touring the state meeting with local government leaders and social service agencies and pushing them to partner with the state and treat homelessness like the crisis it is. Newsom has made the issue a top state priority and has committed a billion dollars in state funding. At his final stop, in Oakland on Jan. 16, Newsom promoted new programs to deploy emergency tents, trailers and medical services across California to assist individuals experiencing homelessness.
Safe parking programs are being launched throughout the state and region. Mountain View's program, which is operated by a nonprofit agency, includes two city-owned parking lots, each of which can accommodate up to 30 oversized vehicles, in addition to church lots. Churches need no permits to host up to four vehicles on their property.
The latest homeless survey showed that the number of homeless people who are living in vehicles in Santa Clara County is estimated to have more than doubled last year, from 8 to 18 percent. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to help cities find and fund additional sites for hosting vehicle dwellers, including those that can be used and stay open 24 hours a day instead of only in the evenings.
While safe parking programs aren't solutions to the broader homelessness problem, they can provide hope and security to a growing segment of the working poor. It takes courage and political leadership to design solutions to problems that might create controversy in the community. The faith community and social service agencies have long been leading the way on the issue of homelessness in Palo Alto, quietly taking in and feeding the homeless on a rotating basis.
But addressing this problem cannot be left to churches, and regulations must not make implementation so difficult it discourages action. We hope the City Council will quickly expand and modify the program adopted this week as needed to ensure its success so it is more than tokenism.