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Palo Alto’s Vehicle Habitation Ordinance

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Bad Policy – But not a reflection of the whole community

As reported in an earlier issue of STREET SHEET, the Palo Alto City Council, on August 5th, approved an ordinance making it illegal to live in a vehicle. When such legislation is passed, it’s easy to paint an entire community as biased and mean-spirited. This isn’t always the case as the following E-mail exchange between two Palo Alto residents clearly illustrates.

On Fri, Sep 13, 2013 at 10:20 AM, Brian Good wrote: 

Back in the 70s a friend of mine lived in a low-rent rooming house in North Palo Alto because that’s what he could afford on his pay as a janitor.  I’m not sure if the house is still standing, but I saw one recently that might have been it offered for sale at $2.4 million.

For 40 years, the City Council has aggressively pursued policies to facilitate kicking low-income people out of rooming houses so that rich people can occupy multi-million dollar homes. The agents who are offering this property are college-educated, and have skills that might allow them to help make the world a better place. Instead, aided by the Palo Alto City Council, they are engaged in the trivial pursuit of providing nicer housing to rich people who already have nice housing.

We’ve all heard about the Greatest Generation, that fought the Nazis and made the USA great. I’m disgusted with my generation, the S**ttiest Generation, with its lazy cynicism and selfishness that has made this crumbling world the way it is.

On Fri, 13 Sep 2013 12:29:52 -0700, chuck jagoda wrote:

Thanks, Brian.

There are good, moral, conscientious, conscience-driven, public spirited people alive and well in the land. They may not be of your generation, but they are active. You hear them at StopTheBan meetings, in front of the City Council, and last night before the Human Resources Commission.

We asked the HRC why they haven’t taken a stand on Palo Alto’s brand new instrument of exclusion–the horrendous and draconian Vehicle Habitation Ban, which, if we don’t turn the recalcitrant and very wrong-headed City Council around, will forever stain the benevolent reputation of Palo Alto.

We asked them (actually this was me) how this conflict between haves and have nots, between those who have profited from this greatest ever transfer of wealth from poor to rich and those whose jobs will never come back, between housed and unhoused—how are these NOT human relations issues?

I asked them how, when the City Council has several times asked why this issue (vehicle habitation) has not been referred to the Human Resources Council, the HRC has taken no stand on the ordinance.

I told them I know homeless women who are not going to go into any shelters because they fear them more than the abusive relationship they are fleeing in the first place. These women only feel safe at night when they can lock the doors of their car. And you (the HRC) are letting the City take away their cars. Go home to your wives tonight and tell them that’s what you did for women and the world.

A homeowner named Selby was most articulate as were Aram James, Stephanie Munoz, a homeless man whose name I don’t know, Mila Zelkha, and Lynn Huidekoper.

We told the HRC that the CWGTF should have input from the people they were trying to help. Mila explained how she had started a conversation with service providers and it was like a “trade organization.” She hoped the City would start its own task force and discuss these issues.

A man from the County came and explained all the housing programs and the money and the relations between agencies. But what he couldn’t explain was how the subtraction of temporary shelter at the County level–the armory in Sunnyvale is to be closed after this winter and replaced with 47 permanent houses–and at the City level–Palo Alto is closing access to Cubberley’s bathrooms and showers and parking and outlawing sleeping in vehicles–he couldn’t explain how these measure are helping to solve the problems of homelessness in any way.

When Aram asked him if the closing of Cubberley was a help or a hindrance to solving homelessness, he said it wasn’t helping.

I believe we made the point that taking away shelter BEFORE replacing it with some other shelter is poor procedure. The man from San Jose (Bob Colci?) admitted after the meeting that asking him to surrender his car without having a replacement in hand was not a good deal. He seemed to get the connection between him giving up his car without a replacement in hand and car campers being forced to give up their vehicular shelter without any replacement.

As with our speeches to the City Council, these seem to see the gaping logical problems with their “solutions,” but seem unwilling to actually reconsider them.

We are clearly dealing with a situation where a decision was reached (unsheltered people must be discouraged) and then shoring up began after the decision had been made. The shoring is pretty shoddy and very vulnerable to Constitutional criticism, not to mention human decency values.

Such behavior is most similar to addiction. A person keeps reaching for a toxic substance as if it were life itself, when it is really destroying him and he knows this and cannot stop.

I cannot imagine how the City Council thinks this VHO won’t go down in flames and lots of expense. Yet they pursue and defend their chosen non-plan even though it will damage them, the City, and the legacy of all of us who let Palo Alto commit this offense against grace and humanity.

Since STREET SHEET”S first coverage of this issue, we’ve made it clear that  this is a misguided and mean spirited ordinance enacted by the Palo Alto city council despite protest from a large and vocal segment of the city’s population. The following statement by Chuck Jagoda illustrates the difficulties faced by citizens of a town whose elected officials no longer represent the entire community but instead choose to legislate according to their own fear and prejudice.

My name is Chuck Jagoda.  I have been unsheltered here in Palo Alto since 2009.  I came here to see my grandchildren.  I was going to get a job–maybe in home health care–that would afford me a place to live.  Hah!  I ended up staying in my car and in the Hotel de Zink rotating shelter (for three months) and in the armory in Sunnyvale in the winter when it’s open.

Palo Also is a hard place to find anything–affordable or not.  Some people feel it’s still too hospitable to the unsheltered–by which I mean those who can’t pay the uncontrolled rents and the even more sky-high asking prices.  These people–despite what they were taught at home, in school, and in their religious educations–believe Palo Alto should be even harsher to the homeless than the City has already been with: the parkification of Sanfrancisquito Creek, closing parks to camping, closing park bathrooms at dark, not building bathrooms in parks, the University Avenue sit-lie ordinance, and now the Vehicle Habitation Ban and closing of the bathrooms and showers at Cubberley Community Center because they were afraid Palo Alto was falling behind in harshness to the homeless compared to other Peninsula cities.

We started Stop the Ban to fight against this draconian, un-Constitutional, and cruel ordinance.  The City Council passed it on Aug 5.  We are fighting in the court of public opinion and in the courts of the State of California and of the United States.  Many Palo Alto citizens of conscience and morality are working with us and are embarrassed at the disgraceful behavior of a City Council that was supposed to represent them–not ruin the legacy of a great and ground-breaking City.

Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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