New vehicle-dwelling ban might push homeless into southern San Mateo 

click to enlarge MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo

Chuck Jagoda hasn't had a roof over his head in six years, unless you count church roofs, or the one at the armory in Sunnyvale.

The 70-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native hit hard times during the recession and says he's had no luck finding a job. He ultimately resigned himself to sleeping in the back seat of his 1989 Dodge Spirit. Four years ago, Jagoda secured a permanent parking spot outside a Happy Donuts in Palo Alto.

He's also become a polarizing figure in a debate that's roiled the city for months. Despite the booming economy, a large swath of the population in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is falling behind. The new homeless rove through city parks, shower in public restrooms and sleep inside their cars.

Palo Alto sought to address the issue with a new ordinance on sleeping in vehicles, which will go on the ballot next month and likely be enacted in January. It's a complaint-citation system, said Palo Alto spokeswoman Claudia Keith, which means cops won't actually be patrolling parking lots for vehicle dwellers.

"It just gives our law enforcement folks a tool to go out and address the situation," she explained. "We think of Palo Alto as a nice city."

But critics worry that bandage solutions might wind up pushing Palo Alto's homeless into southern San Mateo County cities, including Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, which don't have similar ordinances.

And East Palo Alto certainly isn't equipped to handle another city's poor, said Redwood City activist James Lee, who is steering a new group called Stop the Ban Coalition. He considers the new ordinance an example of NIMBY dereliction, rather than a substantive fix.

"It's another instance of Palo Alto shoving its problems into East Palo Alto, and East Palo Alto unfortunately bears a long history of that," Lee said. "All the quality-of-life issues that wealthy people in Palo Alto raise a stink about get sent over there."

A spokesman from East Palo Alto demurred, saying that while the city has no explicit prohibition on sleeping in cars, cops could apply other relevant laws — such as the one against loitering — to combat the problem. A spokeswoman from the Menlo Park Police Department said she didn't have enough data to determine where the Peninsula's homeless are concentrated, or whether they move in response to vehicle-dwelling bans.

Keith cautioned that the vehicle-dwelling ban is just one piece of a larger, more comprehensive plan. Palo Alto also plans to ramp up its social services, she said.

But Jagoda isn't holding his breath.

"I think it makes a nice sound bite," he said of the city's plans.

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