Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, voted Monday night to make it illegal to dwell in a car, the latest measure adopted by the city to criminalize homelessness.
The debate leading up to Monday’s vote was contentious. Proponents complained that homeless people were decreasing their quality of life in Palo Alto, while opponents pleaded that making it illegal to be homeless was unfair and mean-spirited.
“These are Palo Altans,” testified homeless advocate James Han. “These are people who have jobs in the community; people who would love to stay here if possible but can’t; people who are staying in their cars because they live in Tracy, they have jobs out here and they can’t afford a daily commute back to Tracy. These are people who are contributing to your community who deserve something more humane.”
The vote itself, however was lopsided, with seven council members voting in favor and just two opposed. Shouts of “shame!” echoed throughout the chamber from opponents of the measure, according to Palo Alto Online’s Gennady Sheyner.
There are more than 400 homeless men and women who live in Palo Alto, according to a 2010 estimate, and as many as 50 of them currently find refuge in their cars. If they don’t find other accommodations or leave town in the next six months when the law goes fully into effect, they could face six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Palo Alto first considered banning people from dwelling in vehicles in 2011, but opted instead to try to mimic a program used in other cities where homeless residents can park and sleep at local churches. That plan failed to take hold in Palo Alto, Sheyner notes, “after staff failed to find participants in the local faith-based community.”
Even before Monday’s vote, Palo Alto had developed a reputation for cruel treatment of its homeless residents. In 1997, the city passed a “sit-lie” law, which prohibits people from sitting or lying down on downtown sidewalks. The ordinance effectively outlaws homeless people from asking for donations or even spending time downtown; as a result, homeless residents are pushed even further to the margin of society.
Many cities in the Bay Area have already outlawed sleeping in one’s car. And though there’s no exact count of how many municipalities ban it, a recent Time article about homeless people living in their vehicles estimated that it’s illegal in much of the country.