Features & Columns

Palo Alto draws hard line on Cubberley Community Center homeless population

Cubberley Community Center WILL TRAVEL: Chuck Jagoda lives out of his car in Palo Alto, often sleeping at night in the backseat. Photograph by Alex Stover

Palo Alto plans to evict Chuck Jagoda. A one-time New York City schoolteacher, Jagoda, 70, came to Silicon Valley's tech burb four years ago to be closer to his five young grandchildren. That plan has been a work in progress, as he's currently estranged from his daughter and has limited access to his son's children. Jagoda spends most of his days at home: a faded blue '89 Dodge Spirit, filled with boxes of clothes, bags and canisters of grains and fruit and protein shakes, and newspapers scattered about.

The average rental in Palo Alto costs more than $2,600 a month—probably about 10 times the price of Jagoda's car, if Kelly Blue Book still placed a value on it—but this isn't a story simply about money. A long-simmering community fight over homeless people living in their cars, vans and RVs in the parking lots of Palo Alto's Cubberley Community Center has turned nasty, and Jagoda and dozens of other vehicle dwellers feel like they're being driven out of town.

On Aug. 5, the Palo Alto City Council passed an ordinance that bans people from sleeping in their cars, with enforcement rolling out over the next five months. Two weeks later, on Aug. 19, the council voted to prohibit people from setting foot without permission on any of the city's community center campuses between the hours of 10:30pm and sunrise.

The votes came in response to neighbors and community center visitors who voiced alarm over a recent jump in the number of homeless people camping at Cubberley, coupled with increasing reports of fighting, public urination and defecation, drinking and drug use. But the shock and outrage, to some extent, has been disingenuous.

Residents, city staff and elected officials have known for more than two years that homeless people were camping at Cubberley to take advantage of public restrooms, showers and free WiFi emanating from the branch library. But thanks to what one homeless advocate calls "a compassionate culture of looking away," the number of campers grew to as many as 40, with about half living in their vehicles. Now city officials are being accused of turning their back in a different way.

Jagoda's bedroom can be found in his back seat. He rolls up a robe as his pillow, and a parcel shelf acts as a bedside table where Jagoda keeps reading material and a cup of water at night. The driver's seat serves as an office, where he works on his laptop during the day.

He admits things have gotten rougher lately. "I have stayed at Cubberley, and, frankly, I'm happier elsewhere," Jagoda says, noting that he sometimes he stays in the armory shelter or sleeps on a park bench. But after one drunken camper rousted him while sleeping on a picnic table, he decided to find other places to park.

Councilmember Liz Kniss, who returned to the council after 12 years on the county Board of Supervisors, says the city had to act to protect residents. "More than anything else, this is a public health problem, and we've said that from the beginning," Kniss says.

While residents wanted city officials to fix the situation at Cubberley, no one seems happy with a policy that some say is akin to "criminalizing" homelessness. Jagoda, who has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of the homeless community, says he's heard from apologetic residents.

"There's a lot of good morality here in Palo Alto, a lot of Palo Altans who feel embarrassed by the ban," he says.

In the last several weeks, local nonprofits have formed a taskforce to look at a variety of strategies to assist Cubberley residents, including how to use $250,000 the council voted to put toward helping campers find shelters, services and possibly permanent housing. Convened by Community Working Group, a key nonprofit player in Palo Alto, other players include: InnVision Shelter Network, Downtown Streets Team, Momentum for Mental Health, Peninsula Healthcare Connection, Palo Alto Housing Corporation and Project WeHOPE. County officials have also dropped in.

"The real push has been for the need for a multi-agency dialogue about what strategies we would recommend," says task force member Mila Zelkha, a strategic relations fellow for InnVision. "Otherwise we could keep going to this annual cycle of one band-aid solution after another."

Of the city's contribution, $150,000 could be used by the nonprofits for services and $100,000 would go toward 10 vouchers for subsidized housing. But, as advocates point out, there's currently no place in Palo Alto to use the vouchers. The wait list at the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue—which provides food, showers, lockers, medical help, counseling and 88 permanent housing units for families and single adults—could take years for some applicants.

The five-story center, built in 2006 at a cost of nearly $24 million using public and private funding, is a source of pride for Kniss and others who formed a homeless task force 20 years ago that led to the center's creation. And yet, despite decades of concerted efforts by a large number of community players, homelessness remains a dirty secret in one of the most affluent areas of the country.

Eileen Richardson, CEO of Downtown Streets Team, says her organization will ask for about $50,000 of the city's funds to cover the cost of a case manager, who will work directly with about 20 homeless individuals to get them into housing. She says one case manager for every 20 people is a tried and true formula.

InnVision's Zelkha says other ideas include expanding the capacity of the rotating shelter Hotel de Zink, which now can only temporarily house about 15 individuals. Churches around Palo Alto take turns offering beds, meals and access to services.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian has proposed the county and Palo Alto come together on a partnership of sorts. "Some people say Palo Alto is just a small city, and can't do it alone, and fair enough, I think on one level that's perfectly obvious," he says. "But that being said, each and every one of the communities in the region have to do their part, and I think people in Palo Alto want to do their part.

Kniss says the city is open to participating, but, she adds, "At the end of the day the county is the safety net."

Away from the government offices and boardrooms, East Palo Alto Pastor Paul Bains, of Project WeHOPE, hopes that talk of collaboration is more than simply just that.

"The solution is not going to be remedied by anyone entirely," Bains says. "It's going to take a collaborative effort, and it's going to take the city, the county and the state to do all the heavy lifting."

Out on the street, Jagoda says he and other "unhoused" folks have creative solutions that range from the city adopting a homeless parking program, similar to one used in Santa Barbara, to Stanford and other landowners opening up space for tee-pees and yurts. He says he will continue to fight the vehicle dwelling ban, and has even talked to attorney William Safford about assisting anyone who gets cited by the city.

"I am pioneering methods for future homeless people, and securing their rights," Jagoda says. "You can't just throw people away just because we might be inconvenient. You can't just throw us away. That's not what this country is about and not what Palo Alto is about."