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.