Community Thinking on Vehicle Habitation Solutions vs Outright Ban

People of Palo Alto demonstrated their solution-oriented forward thinking at last night’s meeting on Palo Alto’s proposed legislation regarding car dwellers.

Stanford Lutheran Church was filled with vehicle dwellers and home dwellers who expressed personal fears for safety, for their children’s well being; concerns about safety, sanitation, human rights, fairness; and possible solutions to create safety and community for all Palo Altans, whether homeless or housed.

The proposed legislation was viewed from many angles: without it, police have little they can do in cases of disturbance. But if disturbance is created by a handful of individuals, is restricting the rights of the many the elegant choice? Or is it the slippery slope?

If the legislation passes, how will it fare when taken to the courts – compare the proposed crime of simply living in a car with more familiar news stories of crimes, such as burglary. Living in cars is an economic break point, to criminalize this is to criminalize a choice rendered by poverty. There begins the slippery slope.

The idea that Palo Alto could become a magnet for homeless car dwellers without strict legislation was posed, then re-framed as a regional problem that should be addressed as such.

Problem with threats

Cubberley has opened the gym to car dwellers, which has brought a surge of car dwellers in recent weeks. One parent expressed concern for his children, who feel so uncomfortable about the car dwellers at Cubberley, that they go out of their way on a daily basis to avoid the car dwellers.

In other neighborhoods, some homeowners have experienced or continue to experience certain car dwellers as a threat to safety for themselves, their children, and/or their property.

Several parents outlined concerns that specific behavior of specific car dwellers are affecting their children – that the children are frightened and avoid them at all costs. Many people expressed sympathy for their ongoing daily experience –in some cases for two years, in others for a decade.

One woman’s house was vandalized after she asked a car dweller who was drinking from her outdoor spigot not to use her water. This brave woman underscored the issue as a regional problem. She urged Palo Alto to put pressure on other cities to respond in accord.

The sometimes concurrent and very pregnant problem of mental illness was shuffled around until one woman told about her son who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Authorities had advised her that he should not live with his parents.

And through his process, her family learned that Redwood City has the capabilities to deal with his mental illness issues in conjunction with his homelessness. She referred back to the worry about becoming a magnet, and pointed out that perhaps it is Redwood City that will be the magnet, not Palo Alto.

One solution offered to families who routinely experience threat (verbal abuse, urinating in public) from a car dweller, is to get a temporary restraining order followed by a permanent injunction.

Several people spoke about parking regulations enforcement.  The idea was raised of no overnight parking without a permit, as is done in Menlo Park. Again, this refers back to the solution in Eugene, in which registration with the city helps keep track of who is where…to ensure safety for everyone.

One vehicle dweller pointed out that he takes care to avoid residential areas. He does not want to trespass, nor violate any sense of neighborhood serenity. He maintains a low profile and takes care of his surroundings.

College Terrace has experienced vehicle dwelling as a problem for ten years. Residential permits were an effective solution for the portion of the neighborhood to which it applies. But problems continue for the mixed use section. One resident expressed that many neighbors are fearful of the people living in vans. In fact, she was chased by someone while walking home after grocery shopping.

There is apparently another contingent of vans in that area that will likely face change, as it became clear multiple vans owned by one individual is cleverly “gaming the system” using the vans as personal storage facilities.

More than one person referred to a solution crafted in Eugene, Oregon for a similar issue. There, car dwellers receive a needs assessment, register with the city program, and are delegated to selected sites that can be easily policed for everyone’s safety. Each site has a limit of three car dwellers.

Problems with sanitation

An idea that drew applause sketched a non-residential location –perhaps near bay lands- where facilities could be built to with showers and toilets dedicated to car dwellers. Car dwellers initiated the applause.

One car dweller shared that he always cleans up the area around where he parks. He want a clean environment for himself and others. The concept of contributing to the community rang through as a shared ideal from car dwellers and house dwellers alike.

The opportunity for creating solution through this crisis was the ever present theme. People shared from personal experience. The knife-edge of need that spurs the decision to relinquish housing for vehicle may have become more visible tonight. Emphasis was on solution, fairness, and respect of others.

How to balance rights of homeowners, renters and vehicle dwellers?  The watchword is compassion.