For Peninsula Bible Church, the increasingly prominent issue of people living in their cars is more than just a citywide problem: It's personal. Several members of the church use their cars as housing, so the congregation knows firsthand the challenges that come with being a working professional while homeless, including finding safe parking at night and access to restrooms.
"Once you can put a face to this issue then it becomes more personal and real," Rob Schulze, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, told the Weekly. "This program is a tangible way to demonstrate love to all our neighbors."
By unanimous vote, the City Council agreed Monday to let local congregations designate up to four parking spaces on their lots for overnight (6 p.m. to 8 a.m.) parking. Congregations must also provide bathrooms with toilets and sinks and maintain "clear and orderly premises."
Much like similarly established programs in East Palo Alto and Mountain View, social service providers will be brought in to assist program participants in finding permanent housing.
Among those who have offered their parking lots is Congregation Etz Chayim, a synagogue on Alma Street.
While the safe parking program won't solve the underlying housing crisis, Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky said, it is a step in addressing the immediate needs of residents without homes.
"As we look for a long-term solution to this problem, we can't overlook the short-term needs of those in our community," Koritzinsky said.
The synagogue's parking lot is about 50 yards long and half as wide, bordered by Alma on the front and houses at the back. While there are a few trees lining the front, parked cars are visible from the street.
"So far, we haven't heard anything from our neighbors, and we plan on placing the four spaces away from the neighbors to not disturb them," Koritzinsky said.
Schulze said that big concerns for neighbors of Peninsula Bible Church are noise and the potential for these spaces to turn into encampments. Ultimately, it is the fear of the unknown that leads to neighbors' mixed feelings, he said.
Unlike at the synagogue, the church parking lot is hidden behind the main buildings, connected to Middlefield Road by a narrow driveway. The lot is roughly 100 yards by 25 yards, with trees interspersed throughout and surrounded by tall bushes that block the view of the surrounding houses.
According to Schulze, the church will provide car campers with a safe and consistent space with access to restrooms and other church facilities.
Members of both the synagogue and church advocated for the safe parking program in front of the City Council.
Initially, the council's Policy and Services Committee had recommended a 90-day limit on safe-parking permits, much to the dismay of program operators and congregations who cited the uncertainty as a reason for them not to participate.
"The uncertainty may prevent them from entering into contractual agreements with safe parking program operators," a city report states. "Likewise, the uncertainty may deter congregations, or program operators may not make necessary investments to begin the program. Finally, donors and grantors may be reluctant to provide support for the operators or congregations."
However, the council approved the pilot program for 18 months to start sometime late February or early spring, by which time it hopes the city will have secured a social services agency as a partner.
In preparation for the program, Schulze told the Weekly that the church plans on holding a neighborhood town hall meeting with other churches along Middlefield Road as a chance to meet with neighbors and talk about the program. Among those congregations, the Highway Palo Alto Community in Christ has expressed an interest in participating.
"I hope this is an opportunity for the community, the city and houses of worship to find common ground and work towards a larger solution," Schulze said.
According to Koritzinsky, members of Etz Chayim are supportive, with upwards of two dozen people who voted in favor of the proposal. Member Lisa Ratner had advocated for the program and is hopeful that it will be successful.
Ratner is part of a social action initiative called tikkun olam, meaning "repair of the world by acting constructively and beneficially." The group chose to focus on the vehicle dwelling issue as a way to help locally.
"We're confident by what we've seen with Move Mountain View that this program can provide the resources people in our community need," Ratner said, referring to the nonprofit the is addressing the issue in that city.
Move Mountain View partners with the Community Services Agency, which provides the support and resources to help people find permanent housing.
"We believe it's a basic right to have a safe and decent place to live, which these people don't," Ratner said. "I would like to see Palo Alto and neighboring cities make a greater effort to build more affordable housing and address the underlying issue."
The genesis of the program came from council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou, who proposed looking at large, city-owned sites and exploring the willingness of commercial property owners to let vehicle dwellers park on their lots.
The program approved Monday doesn't go nearly as far as the council members' memo recommended, however. Some members of the public on Monday urged the council to take it 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."
Schulze said on Monday that members of his congregation have expressed a preference for a four-car limit, as well as for passenger vehicles over RVs. Even so, his church looks forward to seeing how the program unfolds.
"As a congregation, we're open to what this would look like," Schulze said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.