The First Congregational Church of Palo Alto is poised to welcome unhoused individuals to its parking lot after securing the city's tentative approval for a "safe-parking" program at its Louis Road lot on July 6.
But as church officials unveiled the proposed program to more than 70 neighborhood residents at a Tuesday community meeting, they were greeted with a mixed reaction and questions about whether the program would create a safety hazard for the neighborhood.
For Associate Pastor Eileen Altman, the safe-parking program is a natural outgrowth of the congregation's history of providing services to those in need. The church, which was founded just before the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, provided relief to victims of the earthquake, she said. It also was a founding member of Hotel de Zink, a homeless shelter that local congregations operate on a rotating basis.
"This is just who we are. This is a commitment that we have as a congregation," Altman said at the Tuesday meeting, which was conducted over Zoom. "We have a very large facility, we have a parking lot that is big and comfortable, and we feel this is a way we can offer hospitality to folks that we know are already parking in the neighborhoods of our community. There are many folks who sleep in their cars every night in Palo Alto."
The church at 1985 Louis Road is poised to become the third congregation in Palo Alto to host a "safe-parking" program, which provides overnight parking and social services for unhoused individuals who live in vehicles. The city issued its tentative approval on July 6 to allow four parking spaces to be used for the program, though residents can still appeal the decision and force a City Council hearing.
Highway Community Church was the first to launch such a program, with space for four vehicles, after the city approved its application in March 2021. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto followed suit last year, when it overcame initial resistance from area residents and got the green light in May 2021. It also accommodates up to four vehicles.
In addition to the nascent church programs, Palo Alto runs a larger, 12-vehicle safe-parking program in partnership at a city-owned lot at 2000 Geng Road, near the Baylands Athletic Center. It launched in February 2021.
Early results from programs in Palo Alto and elsewhere in the county have shown some promise. According to Move Mountain View, which administers the programs with Santa Clara County funding, about 43% of the participants in its programs moved on to more stable housing, which could mean a below-market-rate apartment, moving in with a relative or finding housing in another city or region.
"We feel very, very good about that, considering we are a small organization," Amber Stime, director of Move Mountain View, said at the Tuesday meeting. "And with the housing shortage and COVID, I think we've done a remarkable job in being able to host our individuals."
Even for those that don't find a stable solution through the safe-parking program, the short-term benefits can be significant. Participants don't have to worry about their safety when they go to sleep at night, and they don't have to spend their days thinking about where to park their vehicles. The safe-parking lots are monitored and each has a bathroom facility and a washing station.
"That means their minds are free enough to go on to the next thing," Stime said. "I've seen that happen again and again. That's a testimony to safe parking. Just as we want to be safe, so do vehicle dwellers and so do people who are homeless."
In some cases, the new programs had failed get off the ground. Unity Palo Alto Spiritual Center, a congregation at 3391 Middlefield Road, applied for a program in June 2020, but ultimately withdrew its application despite receiving a tentative approval. Peninsula Bible Church, which is located at 3505 Middlefield Road, also had received the city's tentative approval but has since put its application on hold.
Unitarian Universalist Church went through months of negotiations with its neighbors at Stevenson House, a senior housing complex, who were preparing to appeal its application before dropping their challenge just before the council hearing. Critics said they were concerned about potential criminal conduct by program users and demanded that Move Mountain View conduct criminal background checks on participants.
Some residents who live around First Congregational Church brought similar concerns to Tuesday's meeting. One attendee asked what would happen if a participant "attacks, injures or murders a local citizen while parking in the lot." Another suggested that the program is "halted until the community can have a robust discussion." Others requested more information about appealing the city's approval of the safe-parking program.
Michelle Covert, housing and homeless concerns coordinator at Santa Clara County, said that over five years of operations, the program has not had a single incident that resulted in significant danger toward staff members, neighbors or program participants.
She also noted that the locations in Mountain View are far larger than what's proposed in Palo Alto. The Mountain View program includes a 29-space lot at Shoreline Amphitheatre and a 43-space lot on Evelyn Avenue. The largest complaint she has heard from Mountain View is about not having enough parking lots for businesses because a parking lot is now being used for the safe-parking program.
"We have not had any indications of unsafe action toward any neighbor or community member and we'll try to continue that as this very small location," Colvert said.
Most people who are engaged in criminal activities tend to remain "very much under the radar," she said. "They don't reach out to social services to try to get assistance."
Most of the participants in Palo Alto programs tend to be seniors who grew up in the community and can no longer afford to live in the city, Covert said. Those participating need to show a "connection to the community," which could mean that they had lived in the area prior to homelessness, have kids in school in the area or have current or prior employment in the area.
And despite initial community opposition to the safe-parking program at Unitarian Universalist Church, the city has not received a single complaint about the program since it was implemented, according to Emily Foley, associate planner with the city of Palo Alto who's in charge of the safe-parking programs.
The four spaces designated for the First Congregational Church safe-parking program would be located behind the social hall and classroom building, which stands at the rear of the church's main lot off Louis Road. A portable restroom would be stationed next to these spaces.
Altman said the church has agreed to set the hours for the safe parking program at 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. so that the vehicle dwellers will not be there when the preschool is in session and children are present.
Altman acknowledged at the end of the meeting that some area residents are concerned about safety and security. That said, she said the church feels "confident in the experience that Move Mountain View brings to this work and are committed to supporting and working with them" to make sure both the vehicle dwellers and the neighborhood residents feel safe.
"We recognize that there is anxiety about that change. … We're not unaware that there is some worry," Altman said.