Palo Alto Battle on Living in Vehicles Draws Nearerrer

NOTES BY NORSE:  Palo Alto City Council is moving in an eerily simultaneous way with Santa Cruz and Monterey City Councils to bring up its own anti-homeless vehicle residency ban, proposing to reverse the unusual but positive policy of legal van dwelling, in effect for many years.

In the homeless-hostile editorial, the police chief notes a rise in police calls (but no stats on arrests, convictions, or serious crimes) in a particular area.  With no legal place for those without vehicles to sleep, there are also claims of a “magnet” effect in that more people are gathering there (presumably for the safety and security of a kind of makeshift community).   It’s interesting that the “crime” or “problem” seems to be homeless people “found” inside empty-at-night buildings (not any theft or vandalism).

There’s no indication of a waste problem (perhaps less than elsewhere since many RV’s have their own toilets), but rather a concern about the “perception” of residents, the “anxiety” they feel having someone sleeping in a vehicle on their street.And there’s the usual fantasy solution of “stepped-up referrals to agencies that can provide assistance” (when no such assistance in fact exists)–familiar to those in Santa Cruz who have tried to get nightly shelter or drug abuse assistance or other basic services.

Hopefully Palo Alto politicians won’t fall for it, and the homeless and supportive housed community there (such as it is) won’t allow it.

Meanwhile Santa Cruz proceeds with its new 24-hour-stay-away-from-the-parks law and its no-loitering-on-medians law at the 3 PM session of City Council Tuesday May 28th.  The noose draws tighter.

I am forwarding a number of articles on the subject.

One comment following the homeless-hostile editorial:

               “I often see a gentleman at the PA Mc Donald’s on El Camino. He sits in the television area all the time. Just last week, I went up to him, and sort of joked, “do you own stock in Mc Donald’s, I always see you here”. He responded, “I have no where else to go, as I live in my RV”. He went on to say. “and I am tired of this type of life.” He is a senior, and receives social security. I suggested he put his name on one of the PAHC housing lists, preferably the Oak Manor Town House/Scattered site list, as that list is always open. He said he would give it a try.                           Seems to me, part of the challenge here is that folks who live in their vehicles either do not know what housing alternatives exist, or they are afraid of the bureaucracy involved with the application process, and possible fear of being denied, based on past circumstances. Perhaps, the Human Relations Commission of PA should make it a goal of its commission to hold a training on housing access for those who need housing.                          One little known fact is for those who can be defined as homeless, section 8 vouchers can be obtained through various programs, and the voucher is expedited if the household is homeless; or if there are children in the household, there are transitional housing programs in each county.

                        In addition, the waiting lists for affordable housing need to reinforce the need to give preference to those without housing first. It is a well known fact that many people who are on the various apartment/project waiting lists are folks who already have affordable housing of some sort, but just like market rate renters, they want choice, and the ability to change housing. I believe that priority and preference should not be primarily based on local live/work criteria, but in the interest of fairness, to give those who do not have housing, the main priority, until everyone who needs/wants housing is served. Let’s minimize the musical chair practice in the affordable housing industry of people putting their names on every housing list; getting into housing, and then simply moving to another affordable housing complex.

                       First, educate folks on their housing options. Secondly, commit to the goal of housing those in need first, and then the musical chair applicants. These wait lists are long not simply because of need, but because they are not carefully scrutinized to service those in real need as a priority. Since the city of Palo Alto often helps affordable housing developers, like PAHC, acquire and build affordable housing projects, the city can require one of the public benefits to be that a certain percentage of of the city’s homeless receive priority application wise, prior to the usual “musical chair” applicants.

                        The homeless population will never decrease, and fully be served if we don’t make it a goal to provide equal access to all with respect to affordable housing. The first step is education, and the next, a willingness on the part of the respective property management companies to wholeheartedly address the needs of the under served homeless population in each city and county.”

More interesting comments on the (homeless-hostile) Palo Alto article follow  at .


Vehicle-Dwellers Call Palo Alto Home

Wall Street Journal  By DEBORAH GAGE 

PALO ALTO—Kurt Varner moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles in March to start an Internet company. But instead of renting an apartment, the 25-year-old has been residing in a different kind of abode: his car.

Every 72 hours, Mr. Varner moves his car around Palo Alto to avoid violating the city’s parking rules, and he tries to be as inconspicuous as possible to local residents and other car-dwellers. Mr. Varner sometimes does some rudimentary cooking at a co-working space in Mountain View, where he codes during the day. And he showers at a local 24 Hour Fitness gym. His total cost for the gym and co-working space is $139 a month.



Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

Kurt Varner, who plans to start a Web company, has been living in his car since moving to Palo Alto in March.

Living in his car is the only way he can afford to be in Silicon Valley right now, says Mr. Varner, whose wife, a teacher, lives in Los Angeles. Mr. Varner, who has been effectively homeless for the past few months, says he can’t afford to pay rent on two places but will move into an apartment in the area this month when his wife moves up.

He says he is excited about working on something he is passionate about, but being homeless is “a little scary.”

While Mr. Varner isn’t the typical sort of person found living in his car, he is among a group of homeless people who are doing just that in Palo Alto, which is one of the few cities in the Silicon Valley where it is legal to live in a vehicle. The town now has as many as 100 vehicles housing people, says Curtis Williams, Palo Alto’s director of planning and community environment.

Whether that number is growing is unclear, he adds, but complaints about the homeless rose last year.

The persistent presence of these vehicle-dwellers has divided Palo Alto residents, sparking community meetings and pitting neighbors who advocate for homeless rights against those who complain about noise and public urination and worry about strangers camping on their streets.

Mr. Varner says he normally parks close to his gym, which is open 24 hours, in case he has to use the bathroom at night.
“I don’t think it should be open season for motor homes to park here,” says Joy Ogawa, who lives in the College Terrace neighborhood. “Palo Alto needs some protection.”

The issue shows the underside of Silicon Valley’s latest tech boom. In an area that is home to Stanford University and numerous technology companies, from start-ups to Hewlett-Packard Co., the gulf between the well-off and the not-so-well-off is stark.

Buck, an out-of-work carpenter, is living in his van, seen parked in the back lot of the Palo Alto Main Library.

While freshly graduated engineers can command six-figure salaries, others are dealing with long-term unemployment and struggling to keep up with rising rents and home prices. In May, the median value of a house in Palo Alto was more than $1.34 million, up 11.5% from $1.2 million a year earlier, Zillow says. Rents in June were up as much as 30% from the previous year and are at an all-time high, according to a monthly report compiled from landlord advertisements by Palo Alto Realtor Leon Leong.

At a community forum in Palo Alto City Hall last month, vehicle-dwellers discussed their struggles with long-term unemployment or health issues. Some are working but aren’t able to afford the area’s rents. They say the city shouldn’t punish people who are just trying to survive.

“Palo Alto is safe—that’s why we come here,” says one man, Tony, who asked that his last name not be published. He says he is a gardener who has lived in Palo Alto for 19 years—12 of them in houses or apartments—and has landscaping clients in Palo Alto that tie him to the city.

Palo Alto officials have struggled to find an effective way of dealing with its homeless problem. Last year, after complaints from several Palo Alto neighborhoods, the city attorney’s office prepared an ordinance that would have made it a misdemeanor to live in a vehicle, levying progressively larger fines. But homeless advocates protested and the city backed off.

Since then, a working group of community members has been trying to devise a solution, and is scheduled to give its recommendation to the city on Sept. 11.

“Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, and we’re not carrying our fair share of the burden,” says Aram James, a retired public defender who has lived in Palo Alto since the 1950s and is a member of the working group. “We have to have places for homeless people who aren’t out on parole who don’t have a place to live.”

Mr. Williams, the planning director, says the city hasn’t offered its property for use by homeless living in vehicles because its budget is too tight to administer such a program. Lately, homeless people have clustered around Cubberley Community Center, in South Palo Alto, where they have access to bathrooms, but area residents have complained, he says.

One church has offered to help and other congregations are considering it, he says. Meanwhile, Palo Alto’s one homeless shelter is full. “It’s never enough,” Mr. Williams says.

Mr. Varner, for his part, says he avoids contact with other vehicle-dwellers. “I want to try and lay low and stay out of their way,” he says. “I know why I’m doing this and it was my choice to live like this.” He says he expects to launch his new company—Kickmade, an online marketplace for people to sell projects funded through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter—this fall.
Being homeless has been stressful, Mr. Varner says, recalling the time a police officer shined a spotlight on him while he was trying to sleep. In the past few months he has learned to live “minimalistically,” he says, and to appreciate the most basic things.

Write to Deborah Gage at

Palo Alto re-examines car camping ordinance

By Jason Green   Daily News Staff Writer

Posted:   05/17/2013 12:10:54 AM PDT
Updated:   05/17/2013 12:29:50 AM PDT

An ordinance that would prohibit people from camping out in their cars is back on the table in Palo Alto.

The Policy and Services Committee voted 2-1 this week to send a draft to the city council for review. The decision was driven by both an uptick in the number of homeless people bedding down at Cubberley Community Center and a failed effort to get local faith-based organizations to open their parking lots to vehicle dwellers.

“This is just one more way of handling the problem,” Council Member Larry Klein said about the proposed ban Tuesday night.

“We’re not turning people into criminals. I think we’re giving our police a method to use for those hopefully few — but apparently not as few as I’d thought — who are abusing the situation and are troublesome.”

Between 20 and 30 homeless people — five to 10 of them in cars — can be found at Cubberley on any given night, said Curtis Williams, the city’s director of planning and community environment. City staff pointed to the availability of restrooms and showers as the primary draw.

Those amenities, however, have been the scene of a corresponding increase in fights and other troublesome behavior.
Police Chief Dennis Burns said officers were called to Cubberley a total of 10 times in 2010, 16 times in 2011 and 39 times in 2012. So far this year, they’ve been called nine times.

In one sense, Cubberley has become a de facto homeless shelter, said City Manager James


“We’ve got to wake up to what we’re facing here and deal with it directly and straight on,” he said.

The city has been wrestling for nearly two years with what to do about the estimated 30 to 50 people who live in vehicles.

Residents initially complained about the aggressive and unsanitary behavior of some car campers.

In November, the Policy and Services Committee voted in favor of testing out a program that would allow up to three people to sleep overnight in a vehicle in the parking lot of a religious institution, place of worship or business with the written permission of the owner.

However, only one organization, the University Lutheran Church, was willing to open up its parking lot.

George Mills of Palo Alto Friends Meeting told the committee it was obvious to him that “being without a home should not be criminalized.” But the outcry from neighbors was too much to ignore and the Quaker congregation had no choice but to withdraw from the program.

“In short, it was NIMBY,” he said.

Mills was one of several public speakers who urged the committee not to vote in favor of sending an ordinance to the city council. Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents’ Association, said a ban on car camping would do little to address the underlying cause of homelessness.

“One of the things the city should be thinking about longer term is, what is the caring capacity that we have for dealing with this kind of situation?” Barker said. “I think the scarce resources that we have should go to the bottom and let the solution come from the bottom up.”

At least one committee member agreed.

“I don’t feel the ordinance is going to give us that much leverage,” said Council Member Gail Price.

Klein, meanwhile, was not swayed by additional arguments from the public that Palo Alto should remain the only city in Santa Clara County without a vehicle habitation ordinance. Both he and Council Member Liz Kniss said a ban would not preclude the city from continuing to work with homeless advocacy groups like the Downtown Streets Team.

“There’s no point, I think, in us being the one exception,” Klein said. “We can still be just as compassionate and I hope we are going to continue to be. I don’t think this is a retreat from that.”

Council Member Karen Holman, who also sits on the committee, was absent from the meeting Tuesday.

Editorial: Enact vehicle-dwelling ban
After five years, it’s long past time for the City Council to take action and prohibit overnight vehicle habitation
by Palo Alto Weekly Editorial board
Palo Alto Weekly Staff


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Compassion and support for the downtrodden has always been an important part of the Palo Alto culture, but city leaders have done the community a disservice by allowing the problem of vehicle dwelling to languish for more than five years.

Spurred on this time by reports of increasing problems at Cubberley Community Center, which in the words of City Manager James Keene is becoming a “de facto homeless shelter,” the City Council’s Policy and Services Committee voted 2-1 last week to put an ordinance in front of the full council.

Vehicle dwelling, which is against the law in all neighboring communities, is one of those Palo Alto issues that seems to never reach a final resolution.

College Terrace residents tried to get the city to act back in 2008, as they saw first-hand the effects of there being no legal mechanism for preventing someone from deciding to park and spend the night in his or her car or camper directly in front of a home.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that many don’t seem to think exists because they haven’t personally experienced someone living in a car or camper parked in front of their house. But it is real and the scope of the problem seems to only be growing.

Over the last five years, the city has struggled to find a way to approach the issue in a way that would not simply rely on new laws, but respect and support people who had reached the point where their only place to sleep was in a vehicle.

In 2011, the city staff finally proposed an ordinance to ban sleeping in cars, but brought it to the City Council without outreach to the faith community or homeless advocates. Facing strong push-back from those who found the proposal heavy-handed and premature, City Manager Jim Keene pulled the proposal from the agenda and it disappeared again.

For the last two years, church leaders have explored whether there was enough interest and support for a system used in Eugene, Ore., where overnight vehicle-dwellers are allowed to use church parking lots and have access to bathrooms and other facilities.

The idea has all but fizzled out. After outreach to 42 faith-based organizations last year, only one church committed to the program as others ran up against strong neighborhood and liability concerns.

Last November, there was talk of a pilot program that would allow overnight dwellers to park their vehicles in designated city parking lots, but that too has gone nowhere, and the Cubberley experience suggests that is not a viable option.

City officials, including Police Chief Dennis Burns and Planning Director Curtis Williams, told the Policy and Services Committee last week about the growing homeless problem at Cubberley, including a steady increase in police calls. Burns said police had to respond to problems at Cubberley on 39 occasions last year, more than double the previous year.

Williams said that 20 to 30 people show up every evening, including five to 10 in vehicles, a “fairly significant increase in homeless dwelling at Cubberley.” A manager in the city’s Community Services Department, which has offices there, told the committee that there is more frequent drug use and fights and said that when custodians go to lock rooms up for the night they often find homeless people inside.

These reports and others were enough to convince the council committee that it’s time for action. With Liz Kniss and Larry Klein supporting an ordinance, Gail Price opposing and Karen Holman absent, the matter will now go to the Council, though with unclear prospects.

Up until now most council members have taken a nuanced position on the problem and have emphasized providing support services rather than enacting a law similar to other cities.

Klein and Kniss said they endorse continuing to reach out to the homeless, but Klein, who has previously minimized the problem, now believes that the absence of a vehicle habitation ban may have contributed to making the city a magnet for homeless dwellers.

As we have advocated in earlier editorials, we strongly believe that an ordinance is needed to address this problem, along with stepped-up referrals to agencies that can provide assistance. It is not appropriate, fair or safe to openly permit people to live in their vehicles in a way that imposes on other residents of the community.

A tougher question is whether a ban should be limited only to vehicles in residential neighborhoods, at city parks and other facilities, or whether commercial and industrial areas should also be included.

It is hard to imagine the owners and tenants of offices or stores being any more accepting of a vehicle with someone living in it parked in front of their building than an occupant of a home or apartment.

As the years of delay in coming to a resolution of this issue suggests, there is neither a simple solution nor more ambitious ideas that have proven workable.

It’s time to conform to what other cities have on their books and to equip our police with the legal tools they need to take action when vehicle dwellers create a problem for a resident or neighborhood.

City of Palo Alto intends to take working mom’s car from her kicking her and her four kids out of their car into the streets. 
Homeless Georgia teen graduates as valedictorian
Sojourner Elleby
Despite a life of adversity, poverty, and even homelessness, 18-year-old Chelesa Fearce is blazing a trail of academic success. Growing up in Clayton County, Georgia, Chelesa, along with her mother and three siblings, frequently moved from shelter to shelter, even living in her family’s car in times of need…

…..During Chelesa’s high school years, her mother, Reenita Shepard, was laid off from her job more than once, resulting in the family losing their home. But Chelesa stayed focused on her studies even when bouncing from shelter to shelter, or on those most difficult nights spent in the car.“At night I just had to open my book in the dark and use my cellphone light, just do what I had to do,” she said.

Even with a heavy workload and irregular living conditions, Chelesa managed to make time for extra-curricular activities. She was a member of her school’s swim team and played the baritone for the Marching Band. Her favorite subjects in high school were chemistry and literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading, swimming, watching action movies and hanging with friends, just like any teenager.
Chelesa admitted that she faced many struggles and at times found it difficult to maintain a positive spirit. “It was hard sometimes. I kept my situation a secret because I didn’t want anyone to know my business; I just went to school and did what I had to do.” …..

Part of what kept Chelesa going was her mother. “She works very very hard and I made sure I was doing the same, if not more. She was always helping me out and was such a great support so I had to do it for her,” she said. Shepard often read to Chelesa and her siblings at a young age. “I remember her reading Mrs. Nelson Went Missing, Are You My Mother, a lot of Dr. Seuss. She developed my love for reading at a very early age,” Chelesa said.

At Spelman, Chelesa plans to double major in chemistry and philosophy and is excited to see what will come next. She gives advice for those going through similar situations as hers, “I would tell anyone with obstacles to always keep their faith and to think about the future. Work hard now, so that tomorrow will be worth living.”

Homeless Student Becomes Valedictorian of Texas High School

Published May 19, 2010


A homeless student was named Valedictorian of his Texas high school, MyFoxHouston reports.

Victor Cardenas is a film student at Houston Texas’ Furr High school. He picked up a camera last year and crafted a haunting story of his life.
Vistor kept his homeless state to himself and slept most nights on a park bench in Denver Harbor.

Victor Cardenas is acing multiple advanced placement tests, mastering the Russian language and earning national accolades for his film work.