In a move that in some ways runs counter to the city's broader effort to shift certain emergency calls away from armed officers and toward clinical professionals, the City Council agreed on Monday to reconstitute a police team that will help link unhoused individuals with shelter and services. By a 6-0 vote, with Mayor Tom DuBois absent, the council directed staff to return with an "outreach plan" that in addition to a caseworker, would include a police unit — now known euphemistically as a "utility team."
The utility team is a rebranded version of the "special enforcement team" that the department had deployed in the past to address issues relating to homelessness. According to a report from the office of City Manager Ed Shikada, officers assigned to these teams often built relationships with unhoused residents throughout the city and "focused on the health and safety of downtown and commercial cores." The two-officer team was eliminated during the COVID-19 pandemic because of budget cuts.
Since then, the city has been fielding calls from residents and prominent downtown property owners — including developers John McNellis and John Shenk — for enhanced enforcement. Some pointed to the recent phenomenon of homeless encampments in downtown garages. Others suggested that the growing number of homeless individuals on the downtown streets is hurting businesses that have already been devastated by the pandemic and its economic restrictions.
Shikada told the council on Monday that the city has had a number of situations recently where "having police contact and maintain connection with individuals who find themselves in these difficult circumstances has proven valuable." Assistant Chief Andrew Binder cited as a prime example the homeless encampment at the Webster/Cowper parking garage, which was disbanded shortly after a July incident in which firefighters were summoned to knock down a blaze.
The department, Binder said, is in a unique position to address homelessness because it has the ability to seek charges or make arrests.
"Fortunately, we didn't have to issue any citations when we were doing that but that was one of the options that was at our disposal as law enforcement officers," Binder said.
Shenk framed the problem as one of both public safety and economics. He told the council that just that day, he saw several unhoused individuals using vacant storefronts in the downtown area as homes. One of them had camped out on the sidewalk with personal items spread out next to and underneath the retailer's goods, which were on a rack.
"It's not right and we need to get the ... helping hand extended consistently to take them to the services you all already provide that are already out there as well as others that you're working on," Shenk said.
Charlie Weidanz, CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, said his organization regularly hears from members about how their businesses are being hurt by the high number of unhoused residents on the streets. Key components of success for local businesses include clean streets, reduced crime and an effective plan to end homeless on city streets, he said.
"Regular, uniformed public safety patrols of downtown areas would offer the unhoused immediate social service resources and even more important, follow-up visits where appropriate," Weidanz told the council.
Not everyone was convinced that the police are the best option for dealing with homelessness. Vice Mayor Pat Burt supported hiring an outreach worker who could provide case management services to the unhoused population and then considering police involvement at a later date, as part of the larger context of the city's budget. But council members Alison Cormack and Eric Filseth spoke for the majority in asserting that police officers will need to play a role, even if that role has yet to be defined.
"If you're dealing with somebody who starts a fire in the garage, a case worker alone isn't going to be able to tell that person to put the fire out," Filseth said. "They need to go together."
The creation of the new police team, which is expected to cost about $350,000, is part of the council's broader effort to address homelessness. A key component of that effort, which the council endorsed earlier this month, is pursuing a transitional-housing facility on San Antonio Road, a former site of a water treatment plant, through the state's Project Homekey program.
Palo Alto has also recently established a "safe parking" program for vehicle dwellers. The program allows local congregations to provide overnight parking to up to four vehicles. Move Mountain View, which administers a similar "safe parking" program in Mountain View and on Geng Road in Palo Alto, is charged with providing case management services to participating individuals, with the goal of linking them to more stable housing.
To keep the momentum going, the council on Monday endorsed Santa Clara County's 2020-2025 Community Plan to End Homelessness, a vision document that includes among its strategies an expansion in safety-net services, construction of thousands of affordable housing units, adoption of policies to prevent eviction and doubling the number of temporary housing beds across the county.
But while the council was united in supporting the county's vision, members diverged over a key detail in the city's "safe parking" program: background checks. Move Mountain View does not perform background checks on its clients in any of its sites, consistent with guidance from Santa Clara County. Some council members, including Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka, believe that it should.
The question of background checks is also at the heart of a debate between the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, which is trying to establish a "safe parking" program in its parking lot, and Stevenson House, a residential facility for low-income seniors that is appealing the program. On Aug. 9, approval of the program was delayed when three council members — Vice Mayor Pat Burt, Kou and Tanaka — voted to remove the appeal from the council's "consent calendar" and to schedule a full hearing on the church's application. The hearing is now scheduled for Sept. 20.
Numerous residents and community activists pushed back Monday against the council's decision to delay its approval and implored council members not to treat homeless individuals like criminals. Mary Wisnewski, board member of Heart and Home Collaborative, a shelter that relies on a rotation of local congregations, argued that requesting background checks from impoverished individuals "relies on a disturbing assumption that somehow these specific people in need are more likely to be criminals than any other visitor to the city or to a specific church location."
"People who are in such deep need live in much greater fear of being victims of crime than they experience committing crime," Wisnewski said. "People who are experiencing homelessness have nowhere to put their belongings to keep them safe and they are more likely to have things stolen from them than to steal."
Patricia Regehr, a member of the city's Human Relations Commission, also spoke out against background checks in "safe parking" programs. Regehr, who was speaking for herself and not for the commission, called background checks "social and economic profiling" of a vulnerable population.
"I think background checks would be a horrible way to bring injustice to people who are disadvantaged socially and economically," Regehr said.
The council appeared split on the subject. Kou and Tanaka both supported background checks, arguing that this would help ensure safety for neighborhood residents. Council member Greer Stone pushed back against the implication that unhoused individuals need to go through background checks and cited numerous studies indicating a lack of a connection between homelessness and violent crime.
"I think when it comes to making public policy, we really need to rely on empirical evidence and scientific studies to direct our decision-making," Stone said. "And the studies really overwhelmingly show that unhoused people are not only less likely to commit violent crimes than housed people but are also far more likely to be victims of violent crimes."