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Palo Alto homeless community gets reprieve as vehicle dwelling ban is delayed

By Thomas Johnson | 14 Dec 2013

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The Palo Alto City Council voted unanimously Monday to delay enforcement of an ordinance that would make it illegal for people to live in their vehicles on public streets and parking lots.

The ordinance was scheduled to take effect Jan. 6, but the council decided to hold off until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on a similar law in Los Angeles.

Carrie LeRoy, a San Francisco attorney, had threatened to sue if the city’s vehicle dwelling legislation took effect before the court issued its opinion. LeRoy is representing 84-year-old James Russaw and his 68-year-old wife, Susan, as well as two other homeless people. The Russaws have lived in a forest-green SUV parked behind the Cubberley Community Center since last December, when they left their one-bedroom Palo Alto apartment because the monthly rent was increased from $800 a month to $1,200.

Susan Russaw calls the city’s ordinance a criminalization of “people who are down on their luck temporarily.”

The parking area behind the community center has come under scrutiny in recent months. City officials said they received resident complaints about homeless people staying there — in some cases, the complaints described public urination, fights, and suspected drug and alcohol use.

“We feel this [ordinance] is an appropriate response to a problem we are facing in the community,“ said City Council member Larry Klein, who believes that homelessness needs to be addressed as a regional issue.

Klein challenged recent census data pinpointing the number of homeless people in Palo Alto at 145. Counting the homeless population in any given area is misleading because of the fluidity of travel between cities, he said.

Monday’s council meeting came on the heels of one of the coldest stretches of Palo Alto weather in recent memory, with nighttime temperatures dipping below freezing. Earlier this month, the county medical examiner’s office announced that four homeless people in Santa Clara County died due to exposure to the cold.

LeRoy, working pro bono for the Russaws, recently met with Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump. Palo Alto’s vehicle dwelling ordinance will encourage homeless people to sleep outside, LeRoy has argued, and is unnecessary because existing laws extend far enough to account for anti-social behavior.

“What this law in effect does is it forces these people either out of your city or onto the ground,” said LeRoy, adding that there are inadequate resources for homeless people in Santa Clara County.

Some have used public transportation as a form of temporary shelter. In the early hours of the morning, homeless people can be found using the 22-line bus between San Jose and Palo Alto as a mobile motel, squeezing short bursts of sleep during the bumpy bus ride.

Advocates for the homeless point to this as evidence of a lack of both adequate shelters and subsidized housing. LeRoy said the Russaws have been on waiting lists for subsidized housing for years.

“A lot of people think that if you can get people out of their cars, they’re going to get help and resources,” she said. “What people don’t understand is that there are not enough resources, there aren’t enough beds in all of Santa Clara County.”

LeRoy applauded the council’s decision to delay enforcement of the ordinance: “I think the city made a very smart decision to avoid going to court.”

Listen to reporter Thomas Johnson explain the story behind the story on KZSU Stanford’s “Peninsula Report” radio show with host Eliza Ridgeway:

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