Eager to strike a blow against homelessness, Palo Alto agreed late Monday night to pursue a transitional housing complex with more than 100 rooms on a San Antonio Road site near the Baylands.
After a broad discussion of strategies to increase services for unhoused residents, the City Council backed a recommendation from city staff to explore a development through the state's Project Homekey program. The project at 1237 San Antonio Road, a 14.4-acre site that once housed a water treatment plant, would be modeled after the project that opened in May at 2566 Leghorn St. in Mountain View.
Consisting of 100 modular units, the Mountain View development was constructed within six months, thanks in large part to more than $14 million in state funding. LifeMoves, the nonprofit group that worked with Mountain View to build the Leghorn project, is now proposing to do the same in Palo Alto.
In voting 6-1 to advance the Project Homekey application, council members generally agreed that the approach that the nonprofit has taken in Mountain View would work just as well in Palo Alto, which according to the county's latest homeless census had about 313 unhoused individuals in 2019. The transitional housing is set up for stays of between 90 and 120 days, giving residents time to find more stable homes.
Because stays are temporary, each room can accommodate about three individuals (or families) per year. This means that the project, at least in theory, would be able to accommodate the vast majority (if not entirety) of the city's homeless population. In practice, council members acknowledged, the effort to address homelessness is bound to be far more complicated. Some unhoused individuals are not eager to accept help, particularly when they are approached by someone with no clinical expertise.
And even if the city takes care of the existing unhoused residents, the population does not stay flat. Ray Bramson, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Destination: Home, which worked with Santa Clara County to develop strategies to address homelessness, told the council Monday that even with the county's great success in building shelters and transitional housing over the past five years, for each individual who found a stable home, three became unhoused for the first time.
"The reality is — it's difficult to keep up in this community for almost everybody, but if you're making less than 30% of the area median income, every payday is life-saving and every unexpected expense is a financial emergency," Bramson said.
With council member Greg Tanaka as the sole dissenting vote, the council agreed to join LifeMoves and apply for the next round of Project Homekey funds. Jo Price, vice president for real estate and operations at LifeMoves, urged the council to support the project, noting that the availability of shelter makes it easier for her nonprofit to provide services to unhoused residents.
"We really cannot continue to let the streets be our waiting room," Price said. "Not only that, it's really challenging delivering our services to people through car windows or on the street, when their primary basic needs are not being met."
Price noted that LifeMoves' success rate in providing services is just 6% when it involves unhoused residents on the streets. At safe parking sites, the percentage goes up to 33%. At brick-and-mortar facilities like the one proposed, the success rate is 86%, she said.
The council enthusiastically agreed to move ahead with the plan. Mayor Tom DuBois called the Mountain View development "amazing."
"I want one in Palo Alto," he said.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt called Mountain View's project "exemplary."
"The opportunity to do it here and take advantage of what is a rarity of just huge state dollars that are available for a project like this is something that we need to move quickly on," Burt said.
Tanaka suggested that the council consider other options for the San Antonio site, including renting it and then using the proceeds to create some kind of a program to assist the homeless.
"I'm not necessarily convinced that this is going to be a silver bullet because it's going to help a limited number of people," Tanaka said. "But what about everyone else?"
In addition to considering the Project Homekey development, council members weighed other strategies for addressing homelessness. These included partnering with a community outreach worker to contact unhoused individuals and connect them with services, and reconstituting a special enforcement team in the Palo Alto Police Department. The council generally supported both strategies, particularly the former, though they ultimately deferred decisions on these proposals to a future meeting.
Minka van der Zwaag, manager of the city's Office of Human Services, underscored the critical role of having partners who have expertise in reaching out to homeless residents. The recent rise of homeless encampments at parking garages, she said, illustrates the need for outreach workers. The city formerly employed one but no longer does, which made it difficult to address the trend.
"Due to the traumatic experiences that many unhoused individuals have faced, in addition to possible substance abuse or mental health challenges, being able to develop a trusting relationship with a consistent outreach worker who meets them where they are is key to working on solutions together towards a path toward housing recovery and stability," van der Zwaag said Monday.
While the council agreed to move quickly and aggressively on a Project Homekey proposal, they took a slow and cautious approach on another project that aimed to address homelessness: a "safe parking" program proposed by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program, which is administered by the nonprofit Move Mountain View, allows up to four vehicle dwellers to park overnight at the church parking lot. While the city had approved the church's proposal in May, the project faced an appeal from Stevenson House, a nearby housing complex for low-income seniors. Residents and board members of Stevenson House demanded that the parking program conduct background checks on all participants, a request that the church and Santa Clara County have resisted.
"We want to ask for the checking of violent felons, sexual offenders and child molesters as a safety issue," Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House board of directors, told the council.
Numerous Stevenson House residents, some who spoke Mandarin with a translator, similarly expressed concerns about safety.
"We are not familiar with some of these applicants who are homeless," Stevenson House resident Xiuqun Qu said. "We don't know if they have any previous bad records."
Others, including members of the church, asked the council to reject these arguments — and the appeal — and to let the program move forward.
"The association for poverty and criminality is dangerous," said Linda Henigin, a local resident who is a member at the Unitarian Universalist Church. "People who are poor are not generally criminals. They are much more often the victims of crime than perpetrators.
Christopher Kan, chair of the safe parking program at the Unitarian Universalist Church, said that instituting background checks will deter some people — including women escaping abuse and undocumented immigrants — from accessing the program.
"This will exacerbate our city's troubling racial inequality and will be highly detrimental to people of color," Kan said. "Stevenson House's proposal is not just or compassionate. It will prevent us from helping the vulnerable and perpetuate cycles of poverty."
"Our program will actually improve safety for everyone by helping the needy into professionally monitored paths to permanent housing," Kan said.
While planning staff recommended rejecting the Stevenson House appeal and moving the project forward on the council's "consent calendar," three council members — Lydia Kou, Tanaka and Burt — voted to pull the item off the calendar and to schedule a public hearing on the appeal at a later date.
At the end of the discussion, Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Alison Cormack both said they were disappointed by their colleagues' decision to delay the safe parking program at the church. DuBois called the move a "fear-based tactic that likely will delay and likely discourage other churches from stepping up to offer very modest, four-parking-spot additions to our safe-parking program."
"Pushing for background checks now, when we're ready to start getting people away from the status quo — which is parking anywhere they want on the street — is a disappointment," DuBois said.