Palo Alto: Opposition Produces Results–Legal Fightback against Anti-Homeless Bigotry

NOTES BY NORSE:  Attorneys in Palo Alto previously stepped up to the microphone when the ban was being debated several months ago and warned the city they would take every case, challenge every arrest, and fight the ban.   Since then, activists in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto have urged attorneys to preemptively seek an injunction and not wait until police actually wrote tickets.

The suit is gratifying news to those interested in an immediate and pre-emptive strike to stop the further criminalization of the homeless.  No evidence was presented of car-camper problems except in one area (the Cubberly Community Center) where the city had failed to provide adequate oversight and there the problems were hugely inflated by NIMBY community members concerned with disappearing homeless people from their neighborhood as an aesthetic problem and “perceptual” threat (i.e. no indication of serious crimes but a fear of such).The arguments used supporting the Ban are similar to those used in Santa Cruz before the rise of the “homeless are criminals and a Public Safety menace” Big Lie.  “Why don’t those who support homeless rights, simply provide private space for them?”
“The homeless aren’t parking in front of their homes!”  “Banning the right to sleep is perfectly legal.”   “City Council knows best.”  etc.

Palo Alto activists, lawyers, and attorneys, however, are fighting back unlike Santa Cruz–which sinks more deeply into paranoia, repression, and bigotry.  See the infamous Task Farce for Public Hysteria (aka the Task Force on Public Safety)’s proposed recommendations at ).

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 4:39 pm

Suit threatened over city’s car-camping ban

Coalition of pro bono attorneys argues that Palo Alto’s new ordinance is cruel, unconstitutional

by Gennady Sheyner / Palo Alto Weekly

A group of Palo Alto attorneys is threatening to sue the city over a recently adopted ban on vehicle habitation, a law that they claim effectively criminalizes homelessness and that is far more draconian than car-dwelling restrictions in other jurisdiction. The coalition, led by local attorney Carrie LeRoy, is working pro bono and is representing several homeless residents who will lose the right to live in their cars when the car ban takes effect on Jan. 6. The plaintiffs include James and Suzan Russaw, a couple who the attorneys say wish to stay in the area to be close to their grandchildren. James Russaw, 84, is also receiving regular kidney dialysis and needs to be able to get to his medical appointments, the attorneys said in a letter to City Attorney Molly Stump.

[The text of the letter can be found at ]

Fred Smith, a homeless man who had spoken publicly against the ban, is also a client. At the Aug. 5 meeting, shortly before the council voted 7-2 – with Karen Holman and Marc Berman dissenting – to approve the ban, Smith urged the council to reconsider.
“I recently lost my job, my wife and my house. I now live in an RV in a commercial zone. Please don’t criminalize me,” Smith said, drawing an applause.

LeRoy said in an interview Monday that the list of people represented by the group may further expand as she and her colleagues in the effort proceed with their legal opposition to the ban. Other attorneys involved in challenging the ban are William Abrams and Paul Johnson, both of the firm King & Spalding, Stanford University professors Juliet Brodie and Michele Dauber, Menlo Park-based attorney Jeff Koppelmaa, criminal attorney William Safford and Nick Selby. The group contends that the city’s new ban is far too broad and that staff has misrepresented other cities’ ordinances to the City Council before the vote.
“There were an number of attorneys who expressed real concerns and had deep reservations over whether this was actually a

constitutional ordinance,” LaRoy said.

Abrams, a partner at King & Spalding with a long history of pro bono work and high-profile cases involving civil rights intellectual property, called Palo Alto’s new ordinance “overbroad.” The effect of the law, he said, will be to force homeless individuals who own or lease vehicles to leave Palo Alto or risk arrest. It will target the city’s “invisible” population, he said, people who don’t have any other options for shelter.

In their letter, the attorneys request a meeting with Stump by Dec. 5. Unless the request is met, the letter states, “We will proceed with filing a complaint in court against Defendants on behalf of the Plaintiffs.” The defendants in this case would be the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Police Department and Police Chief Dennis Burns.

The attorneys are challenging an ordinance that the council adopted on Aug. 5 after nearly two years of community meetings, outreach efforts and persistent criticism from the homeless community. The ordinance makes it illegal for individuals to use “a vehicle for a dwelling place” (it makes exception for mobile-home parks and for guests of city residents). The council adopted it largely in response to a growing encampment of homeless residents at the Cubberley Community Center and the resulting increase of police complaints about what city officials dubbed a “de facto homeless shelter.”

According to police data, the number of complaints about Cubberley dwellers had risen from 10 in 2010, to 16 in 2011 and to 39 in 2012. An August staff report noted that in some cases, vehicle dwelling has resulted in “nuisances or more serious disturbance to residents and businesses.” The passed ordinance states that vehicle habitation causes the city to “incur increased costs for policing, maintenance, sanitation, garbage removal and animal control” and that it “creates a risk to the health, safety, and welfare of those persons in the vehicles, as well as the public at large.”

Abrams rejected this argument. The city, he said, already has plenty of ordinances in places for addressing incidents in which people disturb the peace, engage in violent conduct or engage in public drug or alcohol use.

“This is directed toward getting rid of homeless people in Palo Alto,” Abrams told the Weekly.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Stump told the council that violation of the car-dwelling ordinance would in most cases result in an infraction, though it could be turned into a misdemeanor at the city attorney’s discretion. Staff noted that enforcement would be largely based on complaints. The most severe penalty would be a fine of $1,000, Stump told the council.

Critics contend that this proposed punishment is not only draconian but illegal. In her letter, LeRoy argues that the new ordinance will “cause the poorest and most vulnerable among us to lose the only protection that they have from exposure to the elements and to ensure some measure of personal safety.”

“It cannot be disputed that sleeping in a vehicle affords better protection for homeless persons’ health and safety than living or sleeping outdoors on streets, sidewalks, benches, or the ground,” LeRoy wrote. “Enforcement of VHO (vehicle habitation ordinance) will exacerbate serious health issues and disabilities prevalent among Plaintiffs, who will be forced out of their vehicles or Palo Alto altogether to avoid criminal liability.”

In recommending the vehicle-ban ordinance, staff from the planning department from the city attorneys office cited similar bans in other neighboring jurisdictions and noted that 92 percent of the cities in Santa Clara County (all except Monte Serreno) have restrictions of some sort in place. In San Mateo County, all cities except for Colma, East Palo Alto and Portola Valley regulate vehicle habitation, a report from city staff states. Not having such an ordinance makes Palo Alto a “magnet” for vehicle dwellers, proponents of the ban argued.

Before voting for the ordinance on Aug. 5, Councilman Larry Klein talked about the city’s “obligation to protect our neighborhoods.” He told his colleagues that he had seen dozens of homeless campers during two recent tours of Cubberley.
“The dramatic increase in homeless in Cubberley sleeping in their vehicles shows that we have inadvertently become a magnet,” Klein said. “That has to come to an end.”

The attorneys contend that this argument — other cities have such ordinances and so should Palo Alto – is a misrepresentation. While most cities do indeed have restrictions, Palo Alto’s new law is both broader and more punitive than those elsewhere, LeRoy said. In Mountain View and Menlo Park, for instance, vehicle bans are limited to residential areas (in Menlo Park, this includes 300 feet within a residential zone). In Los Altos, it is illegal to “stop, stand or park a vehicle” for longer than 30 minutes between 2 and 6 a.m., when a notice is posted on the block. Palo Alto’s law, meanwhile, applies to all streets, all the time.
Furthermore, punishment for violating this ordinance in other cities is a parking citation. In Palo Alto, it could potentially be incarceration, LeRoy said. The difference between a parking ticket and possible jail time, is huge, she said. Palo Alto’s ordinance, she argued, effectively makes homelessness a crime.

“Cities across our nation have come up with restrictions that may be directed at homeless residents, but include exceptions so as to avoid punishing homeless residents for involuntary acts necessary to human survival, such as the acts of resting or sleeping,” her letter stated. “The VHO, on the other hand, is one of the most punitive ordinances in the area and it has the effect of criminalizing the status of homelessness.”

In addition to the vehicle-habitation ordinance, the council adopted a separate law on Aug. 19, mandating that all community centers, including Cubberley, be closed between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise.

LeRoy noted in an interview that the council’s ban on overnight parking at Cubberley and other community centers already addressed the major problem that the city was trying to solve in banning vehicle habitation. Given the new restriction on community-center hours, the broader ban on vehicle dwelling wasn’t tailored to address any legitimate concerns, she said.
“If vehicle dwellers can’t be here at night during normal sleeping hours, do you still need to ban vehicle habitation throughout the city?” she asked.

She contended that if the City Council knew that the proposed ordinance goes far beyond those of neighboring cities, it may have been less likely to support the proposed vehicle-habitation ban. She couldn’t say Monday what an acceptable alternative ordinance would be, noting that this might be the subject of settlement discussions.

“I think the effort now is to repeal the vehicle ordinance,” LeRoy said.

Though Stump said on Aug. 5 that violations would only be prosecuted as misdemeanors as a “last resort,” Abrams said the assurance is insufficient. The attorneys may be open at a future date to discuss alternative ordinances, but that’s a “different conversation.” The goal now is to get the recently passed ordinance off the books.

“Now, we have an ordinance that is illegal, that is unconstitutional and that needs to be stricken down,” Abrams said.

Many Posted Comments at


A sample:

Posted by Phil, a resident of Downtown North on Nov 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm
No worries. Law suit away if you’d like. San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz are three of the most open and liberal cities in the country. They have all have overnight camping/parking bans which have all been tested and successfully defended in a civil court. Like I said, no worries. It also leaves me to think how quick one of these attorneys crying foul would be the first to call the police if someone was sleeping in a car in front of their house every night. A perfect example of compassionate and open when convenient. If they’re that concerned, then these attorneys and advocates should open up their personal driveways and homes to give these folks somewhere to sleep.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto 22 hours ago
They way I see it, as long as financial institutions are still allowed to sell and trade junk mortgages, as long as not one Wall Street conman has gone to prison, car-camping should not be criminalized. Once the big criminals are punished, I’d be willing to deal with car-camping. Speaking of double standards, how interesting that the already existing leaf-blower ban ordinance isn’t enforced, unrelated of course to the pressure by the manufacturers and landscape contractors, who promised demonstrations and hunger strikes in front of city hall if the ordinance is enforced.
Posted by Very Simple, a resident of Midtown 22 hours ago
If all of these attorneys and others are so concerned, they can open up their own personal property and have the homeless live there. We don’t have that many homeless in Palo Alto that they couldn’t all be accommodated in this easily by a small subset of ban opponents. That’s what real generosity is– giving of yourself to the less fortunate. Not morally preening and harassing the overwhelming majority of residents who don’t want our city turned into an open-air homeless encampment, don’t want the “San Franciscoization” of Palo Alto and are concerned about the safety of say, their kids (as mine do) going to preschool right next to a site of a homeless encampment.
Posted by Retired Teacher, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis 20 hours ago
I applaud Carrie Leroy and her coalition for challenging this ordinance. This incredibly well-off community with its sky-high home prices and outrageous rents should find ways to help people on the margins, not threaten them with fines and jail. Many of the so-called affordable housing projects are well out of the reach of the homeless–we need more places like 801 Alma. Meanwhile, we should find more humane ways to manage the problems that do often accompany homelessness.
The suggestion that anyone who is concerned about the homeless should take them into their own homes or let them camp out in front of their homes is clearly an attempt to confuse the issue. Taking care of the less fortunate is not just the job for a few concerned people. It’s the responsibility of our entire society, and right now, we’re doing a lousy job of it.
Posted by Enough!, a resident of Greenmeadow 19 hours ago
I’ve had people living in front of my house. It was especially unsettling when my daughter was 2 years old and I couldn’t let her play outside and had to keep the drapes closed because the guy would watch us. More unsettling when we would jugs of undefined liquid on the ground, some knocked over, between his vehicle and the curb. Totally unsettling when we came home once to find the guy having a seizure on our front door steps, with paramedics attending. Disgusting when I had to go out and clean up after both the medics and the homeless person, gloves, needles and booze bottles.
I wouldn’t object if an area with a sort of rest stop with shower and toilets and cameras were to be established.
Meanwhile, the attorney’s who brought the suit are welcome to offer their driveways to anybody they please!
Posted by Concerned Retiree, a resident of Midtown 18 hours ago
Homeless means that these people do not have a home, place to live. Therefore, they are NOT “residents” of Palo Alto and are not entitled to the same rights residents are. They are also not entitled to be a nuisance or a danger to said residents. If these lawyers bringing the suit feel so strongly about the plight of the homeless, they should work with non-profits — the churches for example — which pay no taxes because of their supposed public benefits and services and get them to cooperate in finding a solution.  I do not want a homeless family or persons living on my street and I am glad that the City Council has finally done something to see that this does not happen.
Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of Midtown 18 hours ago
Palo Alto is generally a well-educated community, however there seems to be a significant lack of compassion in evidence. Perhaps it’s time to offer some free classes (open to all ages) on the subject.
All of those who think this ban is fair and wise really need to open their hearts. Sending a check off to some distant place to help others doesn’t buy you freedom from concern for those closer to home.
Get a heart!

Posted by JoAnn, a resident of Ventura 17 hours ago
Another basic human need is elimination. If porta potties were installed in a few commercial (non-residential) areas, the cars would go there. I agree it doesn’t solve the drug/alcohol problems though. A lot of these people were Palo Alto residents until skunked out of their homes by the banksters or just going broke due to divorce, layoffs, etc. They shouldn’t have to skulk away from their home town, too. What I hear about shelters is they are dangerous and people get robbed there. Would all night security help? It might be cheaper to fund. Of course, those with cars would still need a place to park them. I don’t see that the RV’s parked along Park Blvd. hurt anyone. I’ve ridden my scooter there many times and never seen an actual person, nor jugs of urine left at the curb.
Posted by Sensible, a resident of Crescent Park 17 hours ago
A real issue is simply taking a persons shelter, in this case a car, and depriving them of no other option for freedom from harm. If a city blankets a wholesale requirement then it should be at the forefront to provide an equal and opposite opportunity to balance the deprivation of a constitutional right. Even in a government shutdown when employees are deprived of their right to work and pay, they are latter paid what they are entitled to. Now I know that is a horrible example of entitlement for many who don’t like that sort of thing, but this is one of the reasons people all over the world come to enjoy the rights Americans still have…