Palo Alto OK Church to welcome homeless in parking lot | News

Soon, the cracked sidewalk in the Highway Community Church parking lot on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto will accommodate up to four vehicle occupants, at least from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

This is the first of potentially four or more lots in Palo Alto places of worship that the city council recently approved as part of its secure parking program, which has been in the works for over a year.

Using a temporary ordinance that allows religious institutions to house up to four vehicles on their land, the city hopes the program will be a way to reduce local homelessness among those who have resorted to living in their vehicles, many car parks along busy streets like El Chemin Réel.

Highway Community, which submitted an application in November, received the green light from the city on March 2. Two other churches – the Peninsula Bible Church, also on Middlefield Road, and the Unitarian Church on East Charleston Road – are awaiting approval, and others like Unity Church, which is next to Highway Community, have expressed interest in to apply.

“There are a number of different initiatives we are working on, and this one felt very timely given the diminishing opportunities that existed at the start of COVID for people in precarious housing,” said Jake Dodson. , pastor of Highway Community.

The site will be operated by Move Mountain View, which currently operates five other secure parking lots in Mountain View and Palo Alto. Partly funded by Santa Clara County, the nonprofit will provide on-site amenities such as portable toilets, restrooms and a fire extinguisher, as well as advice on appropriate social services.

“We are very pleased to see this development,” said Michael Love, Chief Operating Officer of Move Mountain View.

As the first congregation to receive city approval, the Highway Community site at 3373 Middlefield Road will serve as a closely watched model for the program as city leaders consider a more permanent ordinance in the coming months.

The city’s temporary ordinance regulates things like vehicle and time limit, minimum amenities provided onsite, notification of nearby residents, etc., but the host church can make its own changes as long as it falls under city ordinance jurisdiction, Dodson said.

Highway Community Church, for example, will limit its lot to four passenger vehicles only, such as SUVs, sedans or minivans, which is not a requirement set by the city but determined by the church and its neighbors.

Dodson said neighbors helped shape what the church’s program will look like. During discussions on Zoom, they said RVs previously used the land unguarded, before Highway Community took over the property about two years ago. A few problems ensued, including fights that broke out, Dodson said.

Neighbors were also concerned that, given the height of RVs, vehicle occupants could potentially encroach on their privacy in their backyards.

Surrounding the church are around 12 homes, including the residences of Mary Slocum on Cork Oak Way and Linda Mackenzie on Ames Avenue – two locals who have been strong supporters of the safe parking scheme and coordinated impromptu Zoom meetings with their neighbors to rally support and make deals with the church.

Slocum highlighted the long history of efforts by current and previous churches to support the homeless.

“The spirit was there, but the follow-through wasn’t, so we had a lot of problems,” said Slocum, who has lived in Cork Oak since 1994. “So we’re really welcoming the city with the ordinance. that everyone’s needs could be met: so that we can help the homeless; we can help the church do what it believes is its role; and we can help the neighbors so that we can ensure that our lives can go on and everyone is respected.

Love of Move Mountain View also suggested that it recommends churches work with cars and vans anyway. People in smaller cars generally tend to be the most vulnerable and overlooked in the community, he said.

“The big theory that comes from whoever developed secure parking is just that when you have someone living in a vehicle, they’re one step away from living on the street,” Love said. “(And) it’s a lot easier to turn someone around and get them housed.”

In addition to a large hedge that the church will set up around its borders before residents of vehicles arrive, Dodson said the church and neighbors have asked Move Mountain View to prioritize housing for people with a long-standing connection to Palo Alto.

The Highway Community parking lot has remained virtually empty for the past year due to the pandemic. The church is equipped to park around 80 full-size cars on land that stretches roughly the length of a football field – a quarter of the space occupied by the current church.

There is already a fenced play area for children on the Highway Community site. Dodson said the enclosure might be open to children, but Move Mountain View told him the church is unlikely to expect children, given the site’s restriction to passenger vehicles only.

“We have seen in our many years here (only) a poor family of a mother and three children trying to live in an SUV,” Love said. “So no, it’s usually singles or maybe a couple living in a car or van.”

The Palo Alto Police Department and terrain monitors with Move Mountain View will also be monitoring the terrain, Love said, to record attendance and ensure only residents of pre-screened vehicles are on site. (Each vehicle will be assigned a parking space beforehand and a permit tag.)

No drugs, alcohol or weapons will be allowed on the property, no loud music and no food may be cooked outside the vehicle. Guests must also commit to meeting with a speaker at least once a month.

The limits and requirements set forth by the church and the city ultimately shape a service that Dodson, Love, supportive city leaders and residents say is meant to be a transitional program, not, as Dodson says, a destination”.

According to Love, a frequently asked question at Move Mountain View is the average time it takes for people living in their vehicle to move to more permanent housing. But there is “no real standard”, he said. Some people can only take two weeks to find accommodation while others face more obstacles.

With two clients on the roster for Highway Community, Love said people could be ready to stay there in about two weeks. The overnight parking permit for the church is due to expire August 31, 2022.

“It’s important for people to know that we’re not setting up shelters,” Love said. “These are places where people can be safe enough to work on their plan to get permanent housing.”

The approval from the road community follows the February opening of a secure parking scheme at 2000 Geng Road, which accommodates up to 12 recreational vehicles, 24 hours a day and is also operated by Move Mountain View. But the numbers are small when placed in the larger context of Santa Clara County’s ambition to house 20,000 more people by 2025, a goal that was shared at a council meeting. council on April 5.

Some residents aren’t completely sold on the city’s parking program yet.

Grace Mah, a Palo Alto resident on Christine Drive who is part of her neighborhood association, said at the April 5 meeting that many more residents should be made aware of a potential overnight parking site — not just those who live within 600 feet, as the city currently mandates.

Vehicle dwellers, Mah noted, are required to move at least half a mile away from the parking site outside of nighttime opening hours. So, she argued, all residents within that distance should be notified if a congregation tries to apply for a permit. She also called the $600 appeal process for any approved permit “too high.”

Wendy Yu, another local resident, expressed concern that the initiative could disproportionately impact Palo Alto neighborhoods with a higher density of congregations, especially if there is no cap. on the number of permits issued. The Middlefield Road block between Christine Drive and Ames Avenue, for example, has three churches that have applied or are interested in participating in the program.

Yu also wondered if the initiative would increase the number of homeless people in the city by attracting others from surrounding areas.

Asked about some of the residents’ concerns, Love said the organization’s process is to screen and prioritize people who have local ties to Palo Alto or a nearby town like Mountain View. If a homeless person from a more distant town has approached Move Mountain View, he said, standard procedure is to connect them to their local services.

“Without fear of being a political advocate, because I’m not allowed to do that, we haven’t found people traveling very far from other places to come and use our service,” he said. declared. “The few people who pass – we detect them and send them elsewhere.”

Martha J. Finley