Editorial: 'Safe parking' program is a very small first step | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: 'Safe parking' program is a very small first step

But does new Palo Alto pilot program create too many obstacles to succeed?

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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.


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2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 9:21 am

This article portrays what many people think that these are "unused" parking lots at churches and temples. Obviously I can't speak for all of them, but certainly many are not "unused", just vacant at night.

These parking lots are necessary not only for say Sunday mornings (or whenever the regular meetings take place which can also be for midweek youth activities, choir practices, etc.) but area also used ad hoc for memorial services, weddings and other times when the church has a large meeting(s).

I would like to know how the places of worship will manage to have evening functions in their facilities while having others sleeping on their premises. Perhaps since some already have homeless people sleeping their for weeks at a time it is just a non-issue. If that is the case, then please tell us, the community, that is the case.

5 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2020 at 11:31 am

For me this article demonstrated the hypocrisy of our "growth" majority. They spout off on a regular basis about the need for more housing. But they are unwilling to vote for a more robust solution to getting some of the vehicle dwellers into safe parking areas. Clearly they are interested in housing that benefits people with higher incomes; i.e., tech bros and developers.

1 person likes this
Posted by @Novelera
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 17, 2020 at 12:08 pm

ALL councilmembers voted unanimously for this proposal. Your accusation of hyposcrisy is a fiction. Tanaka and Filseth have both expressed hostile attitudes toward vehicle dwellers in past statements, but both voted for this proposal. There is not a slow-growth/pro-housing divide here. In fact, CM Cormack moved to eliminate study of vehicle dwelling bans as originally posed by Dubois/Kou, making this safe parking proposal about safe parking instead of combining it with punishing vehicle dwellers who aren't among the lucky few to get safe parking spots.

The real hypocrisy comes from the anti-housing folks, whose stances cause homelessness and displacement. Killing Maybell has consequences. 60 low income seniors will go unhoused because of their actions. Safe parking is good, but its a disgrace that so many people are forced into such dire living conditions. Truly shameful that this region can't agree we have a duty to add more neighbors to every neighborhood. Residentialists care more about their parking spots than human beings--the result is people living in our treasured parking spots.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2020 at 12:39 pm

Too many naive people like @Nov aren’t paying attention, and have it backwards.

Kou and DuBois are the real advocates for the disadvantaged. They have consistently been supporters of the homeless, low-income and renters, but ambivalent about high-income Google-types.

Whereas the so-called “housing advocates” Fine, Kniss and Tanaka are exactly the opposite: supporters of the privileged, but ambivalent about low-income people. They feel the pain of the latter, but always act and vote for the former, whether it’s shooting down renter protections, eliminating office caps, opposing impact fees for low-income housing, or watering down the Safe Parking proposal in Policy and Services as Kniss did.

Kniss because she is tight with developers who just want upzoning and rich tenants. Fine who is also funded by developers but is mostly a true believer in the urban utopia dream for well-paid creatives. And Tanaka who thinks free markets will solve everything.

It's 2020, get over Maybell and wake up.

4 people like this
Posted by @Novelera
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 17, 2020 at 2:57 pm

I will never get over Maybell. Soon, the houses that were built instead of affordable housing will be for sale. You know how many low-income people will get to live there? 0!

60 low-income seniors are homeless as a result of actions members of this "community" took and it will be a stain on this community for as long as there are people here to remember it.

Being "ambivalent" about high income tenants is extremely problematic. We have a ton of high income jobs in Palo Alto. Saying "we don't want those rich techies here" doesn't make them disappear. It bids up the price for the scarce housing we have and displaces lower income people. And saying that we just need to make the jobs go away is bonkers because the #1 reason for homelessness is job loss! Think about when you were working (assuming you're retired b/c most of the PASZ folks are) how painful it would be for your family to have your job moved or eliminated.

Platitudes and empty gestures don't matter. Actions do. If you take action to stop housing, you don't care about renters and low-income people. You've demonstrated this with your actions. The people responsible for killing Maybell, Bill Johnson included, should apologize if they'd like to earn a reputation as progressive. Otherwise, don't claim to be for equity whilst sitting in your $2.5million dollar home in a neighborhood that only multimillionaires can move into. It's nonsense.

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