Almanac

News - November 27, 2013

Vehicle-camping ban OK'd by Atherton City Council

by Renee Batti

Atherton's ordinance banning overnight camping in vehicles was finalized on Nov. 20 by a unanimous vote of the City Council. The ordinance, the town's attorney insisted, "is a safety thing, not a homeless issue."

City Attorney Bill Conners' characterization of the ban was a response to Mayor Elizabeth Lewis, who raised the question of the ordinance's legality in light of a threatened lawsuit over Palo Alto's recent adoption of an ordinance banning vehicle camping and habitation. A group of attorneys announced earlier this month that it intends to take legal action against that city unless it overturns the ordinance, which the lawyers and homeless advocates say criminalizes homelessness.

On Oct. 16, the Atherton council had given preliminary approval of the town's ordinance, which bans sleeping or camping in vehicles on public property and on private property when the owner isn't present. With Mr. Conners' assurances that the content and intent of the ordinance are different from that of Palo Alto's, the council approved it.

No one from the public spoke for or against the ordinance. At the earlier meeting, social activist Aram James, a retired Santa Clara County public defender, was the only public speaker; he urged the council to reject the ban, saying that it was unconstitutional and that it penalizes a person for his or her economic status.

But council members defended the ordinance as a means to address theft-related crimes in town, which are on the rise, and not as a way to oppress the homeless.

Police Chief Ed Flint told the Almanac last month that the ordinance will allow officers to make contact with people who show up on private property and claim to have permission to be there. "We've had a series of prowling incidents and burglaries and attempted burglaries," he said, adding that officers who see a suspicious person on private property need to be able to ascertain that the person is there legitimately.

In creating the ordinance, the town was also responding to a series of incidents in which a homeless woman parked in front of a private home, and on three occasions was found on the residents' front porch, City Manager George Rodericks said.

The ban will go into effect on Dec. 20, and will cover the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

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