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Palo Alto Looks for Solution to People Living in Cars

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Peter Jon Shuler/KQED

Chuck Jagoda stands in front of his '89 Dodge Spirit.

Many Silicon Valley cities ban people from living in their cars -- but not Palo Alto. The city was considering banning the practice last summer, but decided on a different approach. Instead, Palo Alto is bringing together stakeholders to craft what it hopes will be a more compassionate solution that still addresses concerns of homeowners and businesses.

Chuck Jagoda, 68, brings a unique perspective to that group. He never expected to be living in his car when he moved to Palo Alto more than two years ago.  But now, his faded blue '89 Dodge Spirit is packed with boxes and bags of all his personal effects. He picks through items in his back seat and retrieves a jacket wrapped in a towel.

"This is my pillow," says Jagoda.  "I find it's very efficient to have a pillow made out of two other things that I use anyway. Cause if I had a pillow it would be yet another thing."    

Although Jagoda slept sitting up in his car for many months, health problems now make it necessary for him sleep horizontally. So he seeks out picnic tables, all-night Laundromats and cold weather shelters. By day, Jagoda takes advantage of the free Internet access at McDonald's  -- which he calls the natural habitat of homeless people. Despite the fast food outlet's No Loitering policy, he says the staff usually leaves him alone. 

Jagoda is surprisingly cheerful and energetic for someone who calls his car home. And he leads an active life.  He says as a former teacher, he now finds temporary jobs on Craig's List.

"I get writing jobs, editing jobs, tutoring jobs," says Jagoda.  But he says his main job right now is as an advocate for the homeless. 

The problem is that guys like Jagoda make some people in Palo Alto nervous.  Brent Barker, like Jagoda, is a member of the working group convened by the city to study the issue. As president of the College Terrace Resident's Association, Barker was asked by his neighbors to represent their concerns. But he says the experience has opened his eyes to both sides.

"It's an awkward divide," says Barker. "Some of these homeless people have been here for years and years. And they feel as if they're part of the community. They feel as if they're a resident." 

But Barker says people who live in a house or apartment don't see it that way.

"They say no," says Barker. "You have no address. You're not a resident. You have no accountability. You're a stranger sitting out there. And that scares me."

The issue of a so-called Vehicle Habitation Ordinance -- combining stiff fines and jail time -- came to a head in the past two years. Palo Alto City Councilwoman Gail Price says that was after about a dozen complaints of trespassing, public urination, aggressive behavior and other problems. 

"One of the challenges here is there are many people who live in their vehicles who are law abiding and do nothing wrong," says Price. "And the difficulty is the concern that there are a few individuals who do not behave in ways that are appropriate for residential or commercial areas."

It's unclear exactly why concerns over people sleeping in their cars is coming to a head now in Palo Alto. Official figures from Santa Clara County show no significant change in the homeless population in the last couple of years. But some homeless advocates say anecdotal evidence suggests hard times have made the problem more visible in many communities.

Working group member Greg Schaefer is pastor of University Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford. He says he's optimistic the city can come up with something more humane than an outright ban.

"What's been so great about this," says Schaefer, "is bringing people together who are saying, okay, here's a problem and we can do better than this."

The working group is considering a number of recommendations, but it's still very much a work in progress. Schaefer believes that Palo Alto can solve the issue in a creative and just way, rather than implementing something that seems like a solution, but will only push the problem somewhere else. The group is expected to come up with a variety of recommendations after the New Year.

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