When Palo Alto agreed to allow local congregations to establish "safe parking" programs for unhoused individuals who live in vehicles, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto eagerly jumped at the chance.
Since January 2020, the church has been making plans to establish such a program at its parking lot at 505 Charleston Road, said Christopher Kan, chair of the church's safe parking program. The program would provide a secure space for selected participants to park between 6 p.m. and 7:30 a.m, as well as bathroom access and case management geared at shifting them toward more permanent living arrangements.
Kan, who lives near Greer Park, says he sees people living in cars in just about every neighborhood, including his own. Church leaders agreed that by welcoming some of them to a "safe lot" and providing them with social services, they would be directly addressing one of the most difficult problems in the city, as well as the state, he said.
"If you look at facts across the country, these programs are effective in helping people off the street and increasing the safety of the neighborhood, because you have people in managed programs rather than struggling on their own," Kan said.
Church members had spent months going through the application process and finalizing the details for the program, which would house up to four vehicles at a time. In December 2020, the church reached an agreement with Move Mountain View, a nonprofit that operates safe lots in Mountain View and on Geng Road in Palo Alto. In March, the church filed its formal application with the city.
Things looked promising when the city approved the project on May 12. But within weeks, the program faced a new obstacle: opposition from Stevenson House, a residential facility for low-income seniors. According to a report from Department of Planning and Development Services, the church and Stevenson House had initially struck a "neighbor agreement" over the parking program, which called for Unitarian Universalist Church to, among other tasks, position the portable toilets further from Stevenson House and ensure that the sites are monitored by Move Mountain View. But while the church integrated these changes into its proposal, Stevenson House followed up on June 11 by filing a formal appeal. The City Council will consider the appeal on Aug. 9.
The biggest bone of contention is background checks. Stevenson House is arguing that all participants should be subject to criminal background checks before they can join in the safe lot program. Anything less, the appeal argues, would jeopardize the safety of nearby residents, including those at Stevenson House.
Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House board of directors, told this news organization that residents became concerned about the program after attending a Zoom community meeting about the safe parking program in May with city staff and church officials. About 50 residents who attended the meeting said safety was their primary concern, according to Mah.
The residents, she noted, aren't worried about whether the person has a record of misdemeanors or property crimes. They are primarily interested in knowing whether the participant is a violent felon or a sex offender, she said.
"Without background checks, there's high risk when it comes to safety, to not only our seniors but to the people who live there in the safe parking program area," Mah told this news organization. "If I was a single woman in a vehicle, I'd rest a little more assured if I knew that my neighbor in the next vehicle was not a violent felon."
The appeal from Stevenson House states that "the city of Palo Alto and Move Mountain View are essentially gathering a group of unscreened individuals, placing a large number of them in close proximity to each other (and to residential homes/schools), and not safeguarding the community by running criminal background checks of these vehicle dwellers."
"The community members are entitled to a proactive approach to safety, with criminal background screening provided before problems occur," the appeal states.
The church has rejected Stevenson House's request for background checks. Kan told this news organization in an interview that applying background checks could deter potential program users, including undocumented residents and survivors of domestic violence. The church, he notes, has been operating homeless shelters for more than 20 years as part of Hotel de Zink, a rotating shelter network that involves numerous local churches, and Heart and Home Collaborative, a shelter for unhoused women. Some of the women who seek shelter, he said, are escaping violent situations and are loath to share personal information.
"If you're escaping a violent home, your goal is to remain hidden and keep your children safe," Kan said. "Some of these women are scared to give us driver's licenses so that we can verify their name."
There are also operational challenges, he said. Each background check would cost between $150 and $200 to conduct and take months to complete, he said.
"Operationally, it doesn't work because if you have someone who's desperate, like a single mom with a kid or an elderly couple on Social Security that can't pay rent — if you have to wait six to eight weeks, it's frankly unreasonable," Kan said. "There's people literally living in the cold."
Mah disagreed with that assessment, noting that Stevenson House conducts background checks on all of its residents. The company that conducts these checks, she said, had informed her that screening applicants for a "violent crime against people" takes about three days and can be done for $15 to $20.
Santa Clara County, which provides funding for Move Mountain View, also opposes background check requirements, which county officials argue conflict with the county's "housing first" policy, which calls for lowering the barriers to housing. The report from the Department of Planning and Development Services notes that requiring background checks would "discourage homeless individuals from participating in the program and obtaining permanent housing."
Stevenson House's appeal points to safe parking programs in various other jurisdictions, where certain participants are required to undergo some form of a background check. These including Los Angeles, where participants are screened in the National Sex Offender Registry, and Monterey, where individuals with serious mental illnesses are ineligible.
A recent study by University of Southern California, which analyzed 19 safe parking programs, found that 10 of them required background checks. Santa Cruz, for example, screens out people with history of violent or sexual offense, while San Diego prohibits registered sex offenders from participating.
Kan noted that Move Mountain View has already taken numerous security measures to ensure safety, including installing security cameras, having someone patrol all safe parking sites and creating a 24-hour hotline for anyone with safety concerns. He also noted that much like in Mountain View, police will know who is using the lot. He noted that sexual offenders who are legally barred from getting near schools would not be able to use the program.
"Our philosophy is: If you're legally allowed to be in our lot, we think we should be able to serve you," Kan said.
Seeking a compromise, the church and Move Mountain View amended the application forms so that participants can self-report if they are on parole or probation and whether there are any legal restrictions on where they are allowed to reside, according to the staff report. Stevenson House rejected that option.
Mah stressed that Stevenson House supports the safe parking program, as well as the county's housing-first approach to addressing homelessness. The appeal states, however, that the "we need to ensure that any proposed SPP (safe parking program) can be implemented in a responsible way and in a way that is safe for the community and vehicle dwellers themselves."
The appeal also suggests that requiring program participants to provide information for a background check allows them to demonstrate that they are serious about ultimately finding permanent housing.
"This is especially true since background checks will often be required by landlords and employers as participants work to transition to more permanent housing," the appeal states.
If the council rejects the appeal, Unitarian Universalist Church would become the second local congregation to open a safe parking site. The city had approved an application from Highway Community at 3373 Middlefield Road for a safe parking program in March and it is now reviewing an application from Peninsula Bible Church at 3505 Middlefield Road.