Palo Alto is known as the home of Stanford University, Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Laurene Powell Jobs and a bushel of billionaires made so by lesser-known companies.

And now it's also known for its homeless problem.

It's an uncomfortable point of notoriety for a city with pockets of fabulous wealth that craves civility and political correctness. For the record, Palo Alto has "unhoused individuals," not homeless people; and an Opportunity Center as opposed to a homeless shelter.

Homeless in Palo Alto? It seems odd to those who haven't given the notion a bit of thought, which is no doubt many people. But think about it for a minute and it becomes obvious: Of course there are homeless in Palo Alto. The homeless are everywhere even if we wish they were nowhere at all.

"This is not a problem that Palo Alto will solve in a week, a month or a year and then put it to rest," says Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who's represented the city on the school board, the city council, in the state Assembly, in the state Senate and on the county board. "It's one that will be with us forever."

In recent weeks, Palo Alto has made clear that the city's homeless, 157 souls by the last county count, have worn out their welcome in a town that has tolerated car campers and other homeless people for decades.


Advertisement

The City Council has banned living in cars in what is arguably the center of power and wealth in Silicon Valley. And just this week it passed an ordinance aimed at clearing out a growing homeless encampment at a busy city-operated community center, packed with dance classes, music rehearsals, yoga sessions, preschool classes and a public library.

It's an odd juxtaposition at the 35-acre Cubberley Community Center: young soccer players, ballerinas, grown-up tuba and tennis players and aspiring pianists coexisting with hard luck cases living in vehicles or sleeping in the bushes or the nooks and crannies of a sprawling building that once housed a public high school.

For years, as many as 10 by Councilwoman Liz Kniss' count, it was live and let live between the housed and the unhoused at Cubberley. There were few homeless on the property, living in cars mostly. And there were few problems.

"It's a very liberal city," Kniss explains, speaking of a city that's elected her to various posts for nearly three decades. And not just liberal, she adds, "but a city with an enormous heart."

The heart is smaller these days. In the last two years, according to a city report, the homeless population at Cubberley has grown as other prime squatting locations like the main library area and the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center have been closed down for renovation and reconstruction. And word has spread that Cubberley is a sweet spot for those with no home of their own.

The center offers public showers, which will now close at the end of the month, and Wi-Fi at the library. It's quiet, roomy and until recently quite safe and relatively hassle-free.

"This is actually a blessing when it comes to people who are homeless or between places," says a 36-year-old Cubberley resident who lives with his wife in a timeworn, 30-foot RV parked along a fence hemming in a running track and synthetic turf field. The man says it's a temporary stop. He's going to get back on his feet. And he figures he'll have a better chance at that if his name doesn't appear in my column. Then he adds of Cubberley: "This is sort of a well-kept secret."

Not anymore. Homeowners who live across an expansive ball field from the broken-down vans, RVs, sedans and people, have been complaining more pointedly as the homeless population at Cubberley has increased to dozens, probably 40 or more by the city's best count. (Full disclosure: I live in Palo Alto, though not in the neighborhood near Cubberley.) Parents no longer feel safe letting their children walk or ride their bikes to the activities and playing fields at the community center.

"We reached a point where there has to be a balance, right?" says Penny Ellson, whose family lives nearby. After two years of brainstorming with the city and waiting for a humane solution, neighbors concluded that something had to be done. "You want to be compassionate," she says. "You want to find the right solution, but you also have an obligation to the community to make sure that a place that is supposed to serve children is a place they can go to safely."

And who can blame neighbors for demanding action? Cubberley has become a scarier place. Police report that homeless residents have threatened Cubberley workers. There have been recent arrests there, including for assault with a deadly weapon. Neighbors report finding syringes, enduring loud music on weekends and stumbling across half-dressed people making their way to the showers.

It could be that a few newcomers have ruined it for the rest, but the fact is it's ruined now. The city will spend the coming weeks figuring out what kind of help it can give those who must move on. (Kniss figures the help and enforcement will cost in the neighborhood of $500,000.)

The impending eviction has left the Cubberley crowd anxious, confused, angry and depressed, depending on whom you talk to. Cindy-Lou Waring, 46, who lives in a van and has been at Cubberley off and on for four years, says she deserves better from the city where she grew up. "I do know they're flipping us out mentally," she says, vowing to stay no matter the city's orders. "I'm a Palo Altan and the City Council treats us like second-class citizens. And we are citizens."

Citizens, in fact, of a city that is exceptional in many ways, but which simply can't escape harsh reality.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.