Midpeninsula Post

Palo Alto City Council clears First Congregational Church to implement “safe parking” program

Palo Alto City Hall in June. (Arya Nasikkar)

Homeless individuals can now safely park overnight at First Congregational Church Palo Alto, after the city council approved a permit last week.

The church will be the third safe parking program as part of the Palo Alto Safe Parking code, a law passed in January 2020 that allows churches and religious institutions to obtain a safe parking permit. The permits are issued by the Planning and Development Services Department, last up to 18 months, require that parking sites have an available bathroom and are clean and orderly, among other things.

Should the director of the Planning and Development Services Department find that the safe parking program is detrimental to “public health, safety or the general welfare,” they may revoke the safe parking permit. Permits allow up to four passenger vehicles to remain in the church’s parking lot on Embarcadero Road from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

While the program passed with a 5-2 vote, with Councilmembers Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou opposed, over 29 individuals on 19 neighboring properties submitted an appeal to block the program at the church. Among residents’ concerns were perceived safety issues with their soon to be next-door neighbors.

“If you stand on that parking spot on the church side … you can see our windows [and] my backyard,” one resident said. “[I have] three teenage girls in there. To me, [parking lot residents are] gonna be peeping Toms and I’m trying to prevent that.”

Beyond privacy concerns, some residents were worried about a lack of mandatory background checks on individuals parking in close proximity to schools.

“The church itself hosts a very popular preschool,” Palo Alto resident Randy Stolenberg said. “I don’t think it’s safe for our children to bring people in that haven’t been appropriately checked … If we’re not gonna do a background check, how do we know that those persons we’re putting in those parking spots are gonna be safe overnight?”

Contrary to popular belief, sex offenders are allowed to reside near schools. “Jessica’s Law” — a law passed in 2006 that prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school — was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 2015. Sex offenders can still be prohibited from living near parks and schools on a case-by-case basis by the court they are tried in, however.

Yet, others argued that background checks on homeless individuals would be unwarranted and pushed for the program to be approved. 

“People who live in vehicles are residents of the city just like everyone else,” resident Rohin Ghosh said. “You know, when someone moves in next door to me, I’m not asking for background checks for them moving in there. I don’t think it should be any different here just because the people moving into these sites are poor people.”

There have been no police emergency responses related to the other two safe parking programs in effect.

While both Tanaka and Kou initially supported the program, they later voted against it, citing a need for further discussion after the appeal by residents and the sheer number of public comments.

“The fundamental issue I have with this is that I can’t remember a time since I’ve been on [the] council where we’ve heard so many people speak,” Tanaka said. “For something that has this much passion, this much interest, there should’ve been more discussion on it.”

Kou said she agreed with Tanaka and wanted to find a compromise with the entire neighborhood.

“When there’s a program, there also needs to be regulation that provides trust, confidence and oversight,” Kou said. “I would like to see that the right program is implemented with … the buy-in of everybody here.”

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