The growing “de facto homeless shelter” at Cubberley Community Center appears to be in large part created by the accommodating approach of Palo Alto facilities managers, public showers, and the closure of other places where the homeless used to camp.
On Tuesday during a council committee discussion about car camping, City Manager Jim Keene said that Cubberley workers had told him the community center was becoming an ill-equipped homeless shelter.
The Council committee’s decision that night to recommend a ban on car camping to the full council was at least in part a reaction to a recent increase in the number of people camping out nightly at Cubberley and the corresponding number of complaints, such as the one resident Sherry Listgarten sent to the Council on Saturday.
In her e-mail she expressed “dismay” that the city “is taking this center, which has so many well-used children’s services, and turned it into a homeless shelter.” Listgarten said that her daughter “who has never been scared if anything,” was now afraid to sit at the Cubberley library because all of the homeless there.
In many cases, residents call police to complain about the homeless. Police Chief Dennis Burns said Tuesday that there were 39 complaints about the homeless at Cubberley in 2012, up from 16 2011.
On Monday night, Burns told the council committee that police officers who walked around Cubberley found 13 people sleeping outside and 20 people sleeping in cars. That’s more than there used to be, according Kathy Espinoza-Howard, who was the division manager at Cubberley and Palo Alto’s Human Services Division from 2004 until 2009.
Espinoza-Howard told the Post that when she managed the community center, which was a high school until 1979, then became a community center that leases spaces to variety of nonprofits, there were generally about three or four people sleeping in their cars on a given night, and only a few more sleeping outside.
Espinoza-Howard said that in 2004 some of those homeless people asked her to open the showers at an early hour, at around 6 a.m., so that they could take showers before they went to work. Since there were janitors who arrived at 5 a.m., she agreed.
At that time, she said, the Opportunity Center at 33 Encina Ave. hadn’t been opened, and there was nowhere else in town for the homeless to bathe.
Open since 2006, the $24 million Opportunities Center has provided help and housing for the homeless. But according to Jill Dawson who works for the center’s managing nonprofit, InVision, free showers and laundry rooms there are only open between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when many working people may be unable to go.
Fights, drugs, prostitution
When she managed Cubberley, Espinoza-Howard said, she saw problems in the bathrooms similar to those that are being reported today including fights, drug use and at least once, prostitution.
But when that would happen, Espinoza-Howard said, she would shut down the showers.
“It’s all about setting boundaries for people. We were very strict about behavior in the showers. We would tell them, we treat this facility with respect or there will be no showers,” Espinoza-Howard said yesterday.
Espinoza-Howard said she would also tell people sleeping outside that they had to move after giving them a list of shelters or trying to help them get into one herself.
Keeping the homeless problem from getting out of hand, she said, was like caring for a garden. “It’s just like weeding your garden. You have to keep on it and keep on it and keep on it.”
That kind of “weeding” is no longer going on, according to Rob de Geus, the assistant director of the Community Services Department.
De Geus said that in the four years he’s been managing Cubberley, he’ has never asked people to leave, including the car campers who overstay the 72 hours that Palo Alto allows a car to be parked in the same spot.
Once a week, someone from a local nonprofit walks the campus and gives information about local shelters and services to the homeless, but that’s about it.
Complaints roll in
De Geus said that he believes the recent increase in homeless camping at Cubberley has to do with the closure of the Mitchell Park Library and the Lucie Stern Community Center, where homeless used to camp but can’t now because of ongoing renovations.
“In the last couple of years we’ve certainly seen an increase in that population,” de Geus said, “and we regularly have issues with the showers and get complaints. We’re hearing from folks every week.”
De Geus also said that he hears complaints about homeless who sometimes try to camp in classrooms that need to be locked for the night or go into rooms with catered events and take food.
Other times, people go into the bathrooms and turn on all the showers to create a “steam room” or wash clothes or cooking utensils there.
“We care about these people and they need food and a place to stay. The problem is that Cubberley doesn’t have those services that they really need,” he said.