Atherton poised to prohibit sleeping in vehicles on street


Although the town has had few problems with homeless people camping on its streets, Atherton is in the process of adopting a new ordinance that will prohibit camping and sleeping in motor vehicles or trailers overnight.

The City Council last month approved the first reading of the ordinance, which town officials say has more to do with giving police officers "another tool in the toolbox" when they spot suspicious people near homes, particularly when the resident is away.

In a staff report, City Manager George Rodericks cited an example in which a homeless woman tried to camp on private property. "That person, on three separate occasions, was parked in front of a resident's house, and found on the resident's front porch."

The ordinance would ban sleeping or camping in vehicles on public property and on private property when the owner isn't present. The ban would cover the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Police Chief Ed Flint told the Almanac that the incident involving the homeless woman wasn't the sole reason that the town crafted the ordinance. "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 must be able to ascertain the person is there legitimately. The ordinance, he said, will allow officers to make contact with people who show up on private property and claim to have permission to be there.

He said that Atherton doesn't have an ongoing problem with homelessness, but when officers encounter someone who is homeless, they are well-versed in providing information about resources that can be called upon by those in need.

Social activist Aram James, a retired Santa Clara County public defender, was the only public speaker during the council's discussion of the ordinance, and he urged council members to reject the ban. The town already "has plenty of tools" to address potential problems that might arise with homeless people camping on its streets, but "penalizing someone for their economic status violates the Constitution," he said.

Council members were quick to defend the ban as a means to address theft-related crimes in town, not as a way to oppress the homeless. "Police need to have some way of taking care of problems (with people) pretending to sleep" but in reality waiting for an opportunity to burglarize a home, Councilman Bill Widmer said.

Mr. Widmer suggested that the town study ways to support homeless programs, an idea echoed by Mayor Elizabeth Lewis. "We do have a heart for people in economic distress," she said.

After the meeting, Councilman Widmer emailed Mr. James urging him to contact an organization he is active in, the Order of Malta, which supports programs serving the sick and poor. He ended by thanking Mr. James "for advocating for those who often are not provided a voice."

Mr. Rodericks said later that staff will come up with funding options for such support during the next budget cycle.


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Posted by Fromdenvercolorado
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm

This is just another law/ordinance which follows the trend of penalizing and criminalizing people who are homeless. Our country has a long standing tradition of using penalizing measures to make sure that certain populations don't have the right to live in or occupy public spaces - from Jim Crow Laws, to Sundown Towns, To California's own Anti-Okie Laws and surprisingly-still-legal-till-the-1970's in California, the UGLY LAWS which made it illegal for any "maimed, ugly, malformed, disabled or unsightly person" to live be in public spaces. All of these laws made it a crime for certain populations to simply live in urban or public spaces like town centers. The Last of these laws, an ugly law in San Francisco, wasn't found unconstitutional until the 1970's.
Now the more recent trend is to criminalize the status of homelessness by passing punitive measures, such as "urban camping bans", panhandling laws, and "sit and lie" ordinances to make it a crime to engage in survival activities such as sleeping or covering oneself from the elements in public spaces. This law is simply following this trend.
In Denver, the city council passed one of these ordinances recently, an "urban camping ban" which made it illegal for any person to sleep and cover themselves from the elements within the city limits of Denver. The lawmakers said that this law was a tool to get people to services. They said that sometimes you need a stick to drive people to arms of help. They also promised more funding for services.
Every national homeless coalition, agency and group, along with the Obama Administration, has come out against these types of laws long before the Denver Camping Ban was passed.
6 months following the ban's passage, a group called Denver Homeless Out Loud studied the effects of the law. They issued a report called "A report from the street" which can be found at their website;
The study shows plainly that homeless people's lives were not improved- they simply were pushed more into dangerous secluded hiding places, or moved out of the center of town, and they felt less safe. The report also showed that city leaders did not follow up on their promises to improve the lives of homeless people by increasing services.
The real story of mass homelessness in America is simple - We used to believe that the public had the obligation to help the most needy by having public funds available to house them. From 1940, three years after the New Deal Housing programs started, until 1980, two years after Reagan slashed the federal housing budget, America did not have mass street homelessness. From 1980 until 1989, America's homeless population tripled in numbers. Then, again from the mid 1980's until the mid 1990's, homelessness in America doubled again. Since then, the national homeless population has gradually grown until 2005. Since 2005, Homeless populations have plateaued, as small increases of federal housing program funding has occured.
As a country, we still give less to our federal housing budget than before 1978, and homelessness is still a mass epidemic.
So, our answer, as the American public, sadly has been to say, "We won't pay for answers to homelessness, we simply want to make it illegal to be homeless in our neighborhoods, towns and city centers."
That's the truth of what's going on here.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

If the Obama Administration is against this, it MUST be a good thing.

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