In fight against homelessness, Palo Alto turns to police officers | September 3, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 3, 2021

In fight against homelessness, Palo Alto turns to police officers

City Council looks to blend case management and police officers in new outreach team

by By Gennady Sheyner

Spurred by complaints from downtown business leaders and property owners, Palo Alto is preparing to expand the Police Department's role in addressing homelessness.

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."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2021 at 7:42 am

felix is a registered user.

“The police department, Binder said, is in a unique position to address homelessness because it has the ability to seek charges or make arrests.”

Those who work with unhoused people agree that police intimidate by their very presence (though this seems to be the desired point). If council wanted to be helpful, they would have opted to use trained social workers for outreach.

But council chose the police, inherent intimidation, arrest and jailing if the poor don’t leave (oh, I mean seek shelter). Done at the behest of downtown business interests and the Chamber of Commerce.

We don’t even see ourselves as the fearful small people we’ve become, willing to use police against the poor. This sounds like something from the 1930’s.

Posted by Jeff Tiernan
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 31, 2021 at 8:36 am

Jeff Tiernan is a registered user.

When a complaint is made regarding a homeless person, the MVPD simply dispatches an officer to investigate and in many instances the disruptive individual has fled or wandered off prior to police arrival.

Actual encounters generally involve the police politely telling the homeless individual to move on and that is that.

Palo Alto appears to be taking a far more repressive approach on behalf of business owners and residents who abhor the impoverished and their oftentimes disheveled appearance.

Palo Alto is all about keeping up appearances and the poor need not apply.

Posted by Miriam Aronson
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2021 at 8:51 am

Miriam Aronson is a registered user.

Hopefully this new measure endorsed by the PACC and to be enforced by the PAPD will not lead to any unfortunate confrontations where police actions are called into question.

Homelessness is an ongoing social concern in this country and if the United States can accommodate multi-thousands of Afghani refugees for humanitarian reasons, why can't we extend the same full-scale humanitarian assistance to the homeless citizens who are already here?

Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2021 at 9:21 am

Citizen is a registered user.

While it’s true our society has criminalized poverty all too often, it’s also true that one bad experience can destroy a whole program, and we shouldn’t be naive about a few bad actors taking advantage ruining things for everyone. If the unhoused are more likely to be victims of crime, then ensuring criminals aren’t taking advantage of the programs ensures their survival for everyone. But if checks are done they must be implemented in a way that helps people rather than creates barriers that keep them from help.

The article implies but doesn’t state whether unhoused people are required to do their own background checks? And pay for them? It seems like that’s something a social services agency would do, then be there to vouch for them as they transition to other circumstances so they’re not subjected to it over and over again.

There is no such thing as perfection here. Our society has steadfastly remained the only advanced nation without universal low cost healthcare in some form. So bankrupted people end up unhoused along with those who were economically devastated because of untreated illnesses along with those unhoused because of mental illness or our society’s failures in rehabilitation and justice,etc. Our society has a long history of failing to validate the skills of veterans to better transfer to civilian work. Despite all the technology that made it possible for the healthy to continue working when the pandemic hit, we remain steadfastly a society that fails to apply the same to help or even erects barriers to better social and full economic participation by the elderly and disabled.

Then when people need help downstream of all these societal failures, the situation is complex and fraught with pitfalls, for those who need help and those trying to help them.

All sides have valid points here.If checks are implemented, implementation should be constantly considered for how it helps rather than hurts the people and programs. No set it and forget it.

Posted by No heat
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 31, 2021 at 9:52 am

No heat is a registered user.

Cops are just the wrong person to do outreach for somebody who is homeless and not engaged in criminal activity. Shame on city council for going this way.

Posted by Jason M.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2021 at 10:07 am

Jason M. is a registered user.

As a homeless person in Palo Alto and speaking from personal experience, it's tough getting by these days as the pandemic is still around and living in poverty is no picnic.

So I try to survive by keeping a low profile, sleeping in unobtrusive places (sometimes in public parks behind the shrubs or other times at private locales including office buildings and garages after dark).

Some homeless people do not want to reside in community provided housing for personal reasons.

Ideally if the city provided a designated area for tents many homeless people would grasp at the opportunity to reside within a small community of their own.

The police could then make periodic rounds to check on things and hand out flyers pertaining to key homeless necessities like free food sources and urgent medical care.

The police need not be an enforcement agency but rather a social services outreach that pro-actively serves the needs of Palo Alto's homeless community.

Mitchell Park, El Camino Park and Piers Park would be ideal sites for such an encampment as they have restroom facilities and nice lawns.

Places like the now defunct Cubberley High School could then offer its boys/girls gyms for showering and bathing needs.

It is very commendable that America is accepting so many needy and impoverished Afghan refugees by providing them with housing and social services but what about caring for the homeless who are already here?

A sizable number of the homeless are former military vets who served this country with honor and risked their lives for those of other countries.

Equality and fairness can be measured in many ways.

Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2021 at 11:46 am

chris is a registered user.

Who came up with the euphemism "utility team"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by Stepheny
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2021 at 11:51 am

Stepheny is a registered user.

Those who liken the homeless here to the refugees in Afghan etc. make a good point. Our homeless are domestic refugees and perhaps, we should use the same methods as for the immigrants in Europe and Asia. An encampment away from the rest of us with the kind-hearted & government bringing food and donations.

For those homeless who want to/are able to work, they should be at the head of the line for services, provided by the police or others. They are the ones we should be focused on helping ... a little help will go a long way for those motivated to get back on their feet.

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 31, 2021 at 12:54 pm

eileen is a registered user.

OK, can someone please tell me why I shouldn't be terrified to walk down University Avenue? What happened to the crazy woman who SLIT the throat of the young Palo Alto High School student last week? This girl was just walking down the street and an unknown woman, using services at The Opportunity Center, came behind and slit her throat. Fortunately, the cut was not deep and she is now ok. I'm all for helping the homeless but the least we can do is get background checks, even when getting services! The woman had a warrant for leaving a mental hospital in Baltimore!

Posted by Paly02
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 31, 2021 at 1:12 pm

Paly02 is a registered user.

City Councilmembers are not experts on homelessness. The majority of them believe societal myths about homeless folks and they justify acting upon these beliefs because the people who complain about homeless people to them (businesses and a few residents) also believe these myths.

Let's be data-driven. Let's trust the experts. Staff at the city, county and state level have more knowledge about the latest research around homelessness than the average "concerned Palo Altan" or the Chamber of Commerce.

I ask that the Council be open to studies that debunk these myths, and that they take a leadership position with respect to the people who are fearful of the homeless. Please reassure them that County policy around homelessness is derived from good research, and help the fearful learn to dispel these myths.

Posted by Mavis Templeton
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2021 at 1:48 pm

Mavis Templeton is a registered user.

- "OK, can someone please tell me why I shouldn't be terrified to walk down University Avenue?"

^ Because living in perpetual fear is a form of self-imprisonment?

Walking down University Avenue is no more dangerous than driving along highway 101.

Citing an isolated incident does not validate prejudgemental discrimination towards the homeless or any outside group or individual.

One concern: given that some homeless individuals are suffering from mental health and/or substance abuse issues, hopefully the police will exercise proper restraint when dealing with them rather than resorting to their service weapons.

Posted by Judy
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2021 at 2:31 pm

Judy is a registered user.

The location of parked vehicles for homeless proposed by the church next to Mitchell Park is too close. Only a thin fence away from children on the swings in Magical Bridge children playground. And a fence away from seniors apartments. Also surrounding areas are junior high school, high school, and a few more school within a few yards.
This pic was taken around 8 pm at the proposed RV parking area for homeless a few nights ago.

Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 31, 2021 at 4:58 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

Jason M - don't you have family with whom you can live?

Posted by dak
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2021 at 5:29 pm

Finally the city is doing something about this problem but it is still ignoring the people suffering most: regular citizens in residential neighborhoods.

I appreciate the concerns of the "downtown and commercial cores" and of "prominent downtown property owners" but what about us regular folks who want to enjoy our neighborhoods without having to deal with "encampments"? We are paying taxes and voting, can this be considered a "core"?

In any case, let's hope it's a start. Council members Tanaka, Kou, Cormack and Filseth your support has been noted.

Posted by Concerned Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 31, 2021 at 7:42 pm

Concerned Resident is a registered user.

The PAPD assigned to this task force should be armed with only a taser in order to avoid any unnecessary shootings of a homeless individual regardless of whether the person is on drugs or suffering from impaired psychological capacity.

There is a case in Danville where an officer has been called into question for the deadly shootings of two homeless men, both of whom were men of color and suffering from mental illness.

Posted by Dog
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2021 at 7:59 am

Dog is a registered user.

Last week in front our midtown home was a homeless person trying to tackle elementary kids riding their bikes to school. Yes...your kids!!! Damn right I called the police and they showed up quickly and effectively!!! For those who think a incident like this should be handled by a sensitive social worker....wake up! God knows what would have happened if he actually caught a child.

Posted by Derek James
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2021 at 9:16 am

Derek James is a registered user.

Refurbishing and re-selling stolen bikes is a common income-generating outlet for some homeless individuals.

Generally the bikes are stolen while stationary, like at a park or tennis court etc.

Chasing down children while they are riding their bikes is unusual and most likely indicative of a mental health issue.

In any event, this type of behavior would constitute child endangerment and hopefully the individual is receiving mental health treatment.

Posted by Realistic
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2021 at 12:36 am

Realistic is a registered user.

I'm not downtown very often but in the past two months I've had a mentally ill homeless woman approach me on University to aggressively scream/spittle nonsense in my face and on a different occasion a wild eyed man approached me aggressively and kicked my suitcase hard while cursing. In both occasions I was just going about my day, and it made me (a large man) feel unsafe. That's not to mention the human feces which can be found in basically any alley downtown.

I have sympathy for the mentally ill and impoverished and believe society has a moral responsibility to care for them, but that does NOT mean you can encourage or allow people to live on city streets or parking structures, that's how you end up with a public health and safety issue.

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