Soon, the cracked pavement of Highway Community Church's parking lot on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto will be home to up to four vehicle dwellers, at least from the hours of 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
It's the first of potentially four or more lots at Palo Alto's houses of worship that the City Council recently approved as part of its Safe Parking Program, which has been in the works for more than a year.
Using a temporary ordinance that allows religious institutions to host up to four vehicles on their land, the city is hoping the program will be one way to alleviate local homelessness among those who have resorted to living in their vehicles, many parking along busy streets like El Camino Real.
Highway Community, which submitted an application in November, was given the city's green light on March 2. Two more churches — Peninsula Bible Church, also on Middlefield Road, and the Unitarian Church on East Charleston Road — await approval, and others like Unity Church, which is next door to Highway Community, have expressed interest in applying.
"There's a number of different initiatives we're working on, and this is one that felt very timely given the decreased opportunities that were there at the start of COVID for people who are housing insecure," said Jake Dodson, pastor of Highway Community.
The site will be operated by Move Mountain View, which currently operates five other safe parking lots throughout Mountain View and Palo Alto. Partly funded by Santa Clara County, the nonprofit organization will provide amenities at the location such as a portable toilet, washroom and fire extinguisher, as well as guidance to proper social services.
"We're very excited to see this development," said Michael Love, operations manager of Move Mountain View.
As the first congregation to receive the city's approval, the Highway Community site at 3373 Middlefield Road will serve as a closely observed model for the program while city leaders consider a more permanent ordinance in the coming months.
The city's temporary ordinance regulates aspects such as vehicle and time limit, minimum amenities provided on site, notification of nearby residents, etc., but the hosting church can make its own modifications as long as it falls within the city ordinance's purview, Dodson said.
Highway Community Church, for example, will be limiting its lot to four passenger vehicles only, such as SUVs, sedans or minivans, which is a requirement not set by the city but determined by the church and its neighbors.
Dodson said neighbors helped shape what the church's program will look like. During Zoom discussions, they said that recreational vehicles previously used the lot unsupervised, before Highway Community took over the property around two years ago. A few problems ensued, including fights that broke out, Dodson said.
Neighbors were also concerned that, given how tall RVs are, the vehicle dwellers could potentially intrude on their backyard privacy.
Encircling the church are about 12 homes, including the residences of Mary Slocum on Cork Oak Way and Linda Mackenzie on Ames Avenue — two locals who have been vocal proponents of the Safe Parking Program and coordinated the impromptu Zoom meetings with their neighbors to rally support and work out agreements with the church.
Slocum pointed to the long history of the current and previous churches' efforts to support the homeless.
"The spirit was there, but the follow-up wasn't, so we ran into many, many issues," said Slocum, who has lived on Cork Oak since 1994. "So we really welcome the city coming in with the ordinance so that everybody's needs could be met: so we can help the homeless; we can help the church do what they believe their role is; and we can help the neighbors so we can make sure that our lives can go along and everyone is respected."
Love of Move Mountain View also suggested that he recommends churches work with cars and vans anyway. People in smaller cars typically tend to be the most vulnerable and overlooked in the community, he said.
"The grand theory that comes from those who first developed safe parking is simply that when you have someone who is living in a vehicle, they are one step away from living on the street," Love said. "(And) it's a lot easier to turn someone around and get them housed."
Along with a tall hedge the church will install around its borders before vehicle dwellers arrive, Dodson said the church and the neighbors have asked Move Mountain View to prioritize housing people with a longtime connection to Palo Alto.
Highway Community's parking lot has remained mostly empty for the past year due to the pandemic. The church is outfitted to park about 80 normal-sized cars in a lot that spans roughly the length of a football field — a quarter of the space occupied by the actual church.
Already existing on Highway Community's site is a fenced play area for children. Dodson said the pen could be open to kids, but he was told by Move Mountain View that the church most likely won't expect any children, given the site's restriction to passenger vehicles only.
"We have seen in our several years here (just) one poor family that was a mom and three kids trying to live in an SUV," Love said. "So no, these typically are single or maybe a couple living in a car or van."
The Palo Alto Police Department and lot monitors with Move Mountain View will also surveil the lot, Love said, to record attendance and ensure that only the prescreened vehicle dwellers are on the site. (Each vehicle will be designated a parking spot beforehand and a permit tag.)
No drugs, alcohol or weapons will be allowed on the property, no loud music and no food can be cooked outside the vehicle. The guests will also have to make a commitment to meet with a caseworker at least every month.
The limitations and requirements set forth by the church and the city ultimately shape a service that Dodson, Love, city leaders and supportive residents have emphasized is supposed to be a transitional program, not, as Dodson put it, a "destination."
One frequently asked question at Move Mountain View, according to Love, is how long on average it takes for people living in their vehicles to transition into more permanent housing. But there is "no real norm," he said. Some people can take only two weeks before they secure housing while others run into more obstacles.
With two clients on the list for Highway Community, Love said people may be ready to stay there in about two weeks. The overnight parking permit for the church is set to expire Aug. 31, 2022.
"It's important for people to know that we're not setting up shelters," Love said. "These are places where people can be safe enough to work on their project of getting a permanent place to live."
The Highway Community approval comes on the heels of the February opening of a Safe Parking Program at 2000 Geng Road, which hosts up to 12 recreational vehicles, 24 hours a day and is also operated by Move Mountain View. But the numbers are small when placed against the larger backdrop of Santa Clara County's ambition to house 20,000 more people by 2025, a goal post that was shared during a City Council meeting on April 5.
Some residents are also yet to be completely sold on the city's parking program.
Grace Mah, a Palo Alto resident on Christine Drive who is part of her neighborhood association, said during the April 5 meeting that far more residents should be notified of a potential overnight parking site — not just those living within 600 feet, as the city currently mandates.
Vehicle dwellers, Mah noted, are required to move at least half a mile away from the parking site outside of the overnight operating hours. Thus, she argued, all residents within that distance should be notified if a congregation is attempting to apply for a permit. She also called the $600 appeal process to any permit approved "prohibitively high."
Wendy Yu, another local resident, expressed concerns that the initiative could disproportionately impact Palo Alto neighborhoods with a higher density of congregations, especially if there's no cap on the number of issued permits. The block of Middlefield Road between Christine Drive and Ames Avenue, for example, has three churches that have applied or are interested in participating in the program.
Yu also wondered if the initiative will increase the number of homeless people in the city by attracting others from surrounding regions.
When asked about some of the residents' concerns, Love said that the organization's process is to screen and prioritize people who have local connections to Palo Alto or a nearby city like Mountain View. If an unhoused individual from a farther city approached Move Mountain View, he said, the standard procedure is to connect them to their local services.
"Without fear of being a political advocate, because I'm not allowed to do that, we have not found people travel far and wide from other places to come and use our service," he said. "The few that are passing through — we detect them and refer them someplace else."