More than two dozen residents near the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto are protesting a proposal by the Louis Road institution to allow overnight parking for homeless individuals at the back of its parking lot.
The residents filed an appeal earlier this month seeking to overturn the city's recent approval of First Congregational's application for a safe-parking program, which is administered by the nonprofit Move Mountain View. The program allows overnight parking and partners participants with case managers who assist them with finding permanent housing.
In applying for the program, church officials said that creating a safe parking program would make the neighborhood safer by creating a designated space for homeless individuals who are already living and sleeping in nearby neighborhoods. At a community meeting earlier this month, Associate Pastor Eileen Altman said the church has been contemplating the program for several years and has had discussions in recent months with Move Mountain View, neighboring residents and other churches with similar programs before finalizing the details of its program.
"This is something we thought carefully about and we feel called to do as a congregation," Altman said at a July 12 community meeting that was conducted over Zoom.
Many, however, left the meeting unconvinced. Todor Ganev, who lives on Embarcadero Road, asserted in the appeal letter that the program would have a negative impact on the neighborhood's health and safety and criticized the church for failing to adequately consider neighbors' concerns. He argued that the location of the four designated spaces is too close to nearby residences and that idling vehicles would put neighbors at risk.
The church, he wrote, should have designated the "safe parking" spots at its main parking lot, which fronts Louis Road.
Ganev also took issue with the fact that participants in the program aren't required to undergo criminal background checks, an issue that came up repeatedly during the July 12 meeting and that that featured prominently in a recent debate over a similar safe-parking program that Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto proposed last year. In that case, neighbors also argued that background checks should be required but ultimately withdrew their opposition of the safe-parking program just before the City Council hearing was set to review the appeal.
In both cases, officials from the city, Move Mountain View and Santa Clara County, argued that requiring criminal background checks would run afoul of federal and state "housing first" policies, which encourage lowering barriers to entry for individuals participating in shelters and other housing programs. Michelle Covert, homeless concerns coordinator at Santa Clara County, said at the July 12 meeting that the county follows the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which calls for not requiring background checks.
"It's a HUD policy that counties and communities across the country adhere to," Covert said.
But Ganev and others who are opposing First Congregational Church's application argue in the appeal that failing to conduct criminal background checks for participants would place neighbors in danger. Move Mountain View, he wrote, is "essentially gathering a group of unscreened individuals, placing them in proximity to each other (and to residential homes/schools), and not safeguarding the community by running criminal background checks of these vehicle dwellers.
The program, he suggested, should be finding participants who are willing to provide information for a background check because this would demonstrate their "seriousness about the task" of finding permanent housing. This is particularly true because landlords and employers typically require background checks.
Randy Stoltenberg, who lives on Garland Avenue, submitted a letter of support for the appeal that similarly characterized the proposed safe parking program as a safety hazard for the neighborhood. Stoltenberg cited an incident in which a homeless individual entered his family's place of worship, verbally assaulted the congregation and was physically removed by those in attendance. He also said he has friends in Palo Alto who had suffered more serious offenses at the hands of homeless people.
He was one of 27 people to add their signatures to Ganev's appeal.
"The safety of my children is of utmost importance to me," Stoltenberg wrote. "I oppose any effort that would attract a permanent flow of homeless individuals into our neighborhood.
"I recognize that the majority of those experiencing homelessness are great people who need a hand. But it only takes one bad experience to impact a child, a family, or a neighbor for a lifetime."
With the appeal filed, it will now be up to the council to determine whether to allow the program to move ahead. The council established the program in 2020 as a way to assist homeless individuals living in vehicles. It approved the city's first safe-parking program, which accommodates up to 12 vehicles, at a city-owned site at 2000 Geng Road.
Since then, two local churches — Highway Community Church and Unitarian Universalist Church — have received the city's approval for smaller programs that accommodate up to four vehicles. At the July 12 meeting, officials from the county and the city noted that to date they have not received any complaints from residents about either of the two programs.
"We have not had any incidents of unsafe action toward any neighbor or community member and we'll try to continue that as this very small location," Covert said.