As Church Prepares to Welcome Vehicle Occupants, Neighbors Call for Background Checks | New
When Palo Alto agreed to allow local congregations to establish “safe parking” programs for homeless people who live in vehicles, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
As of January 2020, the church plans to establish such a program at its parking lot at 505 Charleston Road, said Christopher Kan, chair of the church’s secure parking program. The program would provide secure space for selected participants to park between 6 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., as well as washroom access and case management to steer them towards more permanent lifestyles.
Kan, who lives near Greer Park, says he sees people living in cars in just about every neighborhood, including his own. Church leaders agreed that by accommodating some of them in a “safe lot” and providing them with social services, they would directly tackle one of the city’s most difficult problems, as well. that of the state, he said.
“If you look at the facts across the country, these programs are effective in helping people get off the streets and increasing the safety of the neighborhood because you have people in managed programs rather than struggling alone,” Kan said. .
Church members spent months going through the application process and finalizing the details of the program, which would house up to four vehicles at a time. In December 2020, the church entered into an agreement with Move Mountain View, a nonprofit that operates secure land in Mountain View and on Geng Road in Palo Alto. In March, the church filed its official request with the city.
Things looked promising when the city approved the project on May 12. But within weeks, the program ran into a new hurdle: opposition from Stevenson House, a residential facility for low-income seniors. According to a report by the Department of Planning and Development Services, the church and Stevenson House initially entered into a “neighborhood agreement” on the parking program, which called on the Unitarian Universalist Church to, among other tasks, place the toilets. laptops further from Stevenson House. and ensure that the sites are monitored by Move Mountain View. But while the church incorporated these changes into its proposal, Stevenson House followed up on June 11 with a formal appeal. City council will consider the appeal on August 9.
The biggest bone of contention is the background check. Stevenson House argues that all participants should go through criminal background checks before they can participate in the security program. Anything less, argues the call, would endanger the safety of nearby residents, including those of Stevenson House.
Grace Mah, chair of the Stevenson House board of directors, told this news agency that residents were concerned about the program after attending a Zoom on Secure Parking Program community meeting in May with staff from the city and church officials. About 50 residents who attended the meeting said safety was their main concern, according to Mah.
Residents, she noted, are not concerned about whether the person has a record of misdemeanors or property crimes. They are primarily interested in whether the participant is a violent criminal or a sex offender, she said.
“Without a background check, there is a high security risk in terms of security not only for our seniors but for the people who live there in the secure parking program area,” Mah told this news agency. “If I were a single woman in a vehicle, I would be a little more reassured if I knew that my neighbor in the vehicle next door was not a violent criminal.”
The Stevenson House appeal states that “the town of Palo Alto and Move Mountain View essentially brings together a group of uncontrolled individuals, placing large numbers of them close to each other (and homes / schools) and failing to protect the community by performing criminal background checks on these vehicle occupants. “
“Community members have a right to a proactive approach to security, with a criminal background check provided before problems arise,” the call said.
The church denied Stevenson House’s background check request. Kan told this news agency in an interview that the background check could deter potential users of the program, including undocumented residents and survivors of domestic violence. The church, he notes, has operated homeless shelters for over 20 years as part of the Hotel de Zink, a revolving shelter network that involves many local churches, and Heart and Home Collaborative, a shelter for homeless women. Some of the women who seek refuge, he said, are fleeing situations of violence and are reluctant to share personal information.
“If you are escaping from a violent household, your goal is to stay in hiding and protect your children,” Kan said. “Some of these women are afraid to give us driver’s licenses so that we can verify their names.”
There are also operational challenges, he said. Each background check would cost between $ 150 and $ 200 to complete and take months, he said.
“Operationally it doesn’t work because if you have someone who is desperate, like a single mom with a child or an elderly couple on Social Security who can’t pay rent – if you have to to wait six to eight weeks is frankly unreasonable. Kan said. “There are people who literally live in the cold.”
Mah disagreed with this assessment, noting that Stevenson House performs background checks on all of its residents. The company that does these checks, she said, informed her that screening candidates for a “violent crime against people” takes about three days and can be done for $ 15 to $ 20.
Santa Clara County, which funds Move Mountain View, also opposes background check requirements, which county officials say conflict with the county’s “Housing First” policy, which calls for lower barriers to housing. The Planning and Development Services Department report notes that requiring background checks “would deter homeless people from participating in the program and obtaining permanent housing.”
Stevenson House’s appeal refers to safe parking programs in various other jurisdictions, where some participants are required to go through some form of background check. These include Los Angeles, where participants are screened from the National Sex Offender Registry, and Monterey, where people with serious mental illnesses are not eligible.
A recent study from the University of Southern California, which analyzed 19 secure parking programs, found that 10 of them required a background check. Santa Cruz, for example, excludes people with a history of violent or sexual offenses, while San Diego prohibits registered sex offenders from participating.
Kan noted that the church has already taken numerous security measures to ensure safety, including installing security cameras, having someone patrol all secure parking sites and establishing a 24-hour hotline. for anyone with security concerns. He also noted that just like in Mountain View, the police will know who is using the land. He noted that sex offenders who are legally prohibited from approaching schools would not be able to use the program.
“Our philosophy is: if you are legally allowed to be in our lot, we believe we should be able to serve you,” Kan said.
In search of a compromise, the church and Move Mountain View have changed the application forms so that participants can declare for themselves whether they are on parole or probation and if there are any legal restrictions on l ‘where they are allowed to reside, according to the staff report. Stevenson House rejected this option.
Mah stressed that Stevenson House supports the secure parking program, as well as the county’s housing-focused approach to tackling homelessness. The appeal says, however, that “we must ensure that any proposed SPP (Secure Parking Program) can be implemented responsibly and without endangering the community and the vehicle dwellers themselves.”
The call also suggests that requiring program participants to provide information for a background check allows them to demonstrate that they are serious about the final search for permanent housing.
“This is especially true as background checks will often be required by landlords and employers as participants work to transition to more permanent housing,” the call said.
If the council rejects the appeal, the Unitarian Universalist Church would become the second local congregation to open a secure parking lot. The city approved a request from Highway Community at 3373 Middlefield Road for a secure parking program in March and is currently considering a request from Peninsula Bible Church at 3505 Middlefield Road.