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Vehicle-Dwellers Call Palo Alto Home

by Deborah Gage from The Wall Street Journal on Jul. 11, 2012

PALO ALTO—Kurt Varner moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles in March to start an Internet company. But instead of renting an apartment, the 25-year-old has been residing in a different kind of abode: his car.

Every 72 hours, Mr. Varner moves his car around Palo Alto to avoid violating the city's parking rules, and he tries to be as inconspicuous as possible to local residents and other car-dwellers. Mr. Varner sometimes does some rudimentary cooking at a co-working space in Mountain View, where he codes during the day. And he showers at a local 24 Hour Fitness gym. His total cost for the gym and co-working space is $139 a month.

Kurt Varner, who plans to start a Web company, has been living in his car since moving to Palo Alto in March.

Photo of Kurt Varner by Jason Henry
Living in his car is the only way he can afford to be in Silicon Valley right now, says Mr. Varner, whose wife, a teacher, lives in Los Angeles. Mr. Varner, who has been effectively homeless for the past few months, says he can't afford to pay rent on two places but will move into an apartment in the area this month when his wife moves up.

He says he is excited about working on something he is passionate about, but being homeless is "a little scary."

While Mr. Varner isn't the typical sort of person found living in his car, he is among a group of homeless people who are doing just that in Palo Alto, which is one of the few cities in the Silicon Valley where it is legal to live in a vehicle. The town now has as many as 100 vehicles housing people, says Curtis Williams, Palo Alto's director of planning and community environment. Whether that number is growing is unclear, he adds, but complaints about the homeless rose last year.

The persistent presence of these vehicle-dwellers has divided Palo Alto residents, sparking community meetings and pitting neighbors who advocate for homeless rights against those who complain about noise and public urination and worry about strangers camping on their streets.

Mr. Varner says he normally parks close to his gym, which is open 24 hours, in case he has to use the bathroom at night.

"I don't think it should be open season for motor homes to park here," says Joy Ogawa, who lives in the College Terrace neighborhood. "Palo Alto needs some protection."

The issue shows the underside of Silicon Valley's latest tech boom. In an area that is home to Stanford University and numerous technology companies, from start-ups to Hewlett-Packard Co., the gulf between the well-off and the not-so-well-off is stark.

While freshly graduated engineers can command six-figure salaries, others are dealing with long-term unemployment and struggling to keep up with rising rents and home prices. In May, the median value of a house in Palo Alto was more than $1.34 million, up 11.5% from $1.2 million a year earlier, Zillow says. Rents in June were up as much as 30% from the previous year and are at an all-time high, according to a monthly report compiled from landlord advertisements by Palo Alto Realtor Leon Leong.

At a community forum in Palo Alto City Hall last month, vehicle-dwellers discussed their struggles with long-term unemployment or health issues. Some are working but aren't able to afford the area's rents. They say the city shouldn't punish people who are just trying to survive.

"Palo Alto is safe—that's why we come here," says one man, Tony, who asked that his last name not be published. He says he is a gardener who has lived in Palo Alto for 19 years—12 of them in houses or apartments—and has landscaping clients in Palo Alto that tie him to the city.

Palo Alto officials have struggled to find an effective way of dealing with its homeless problem. Last year, after complaints from several Palo Alto neighborhoods, the city attorney's office prepared an ordinance that would have made it a misdemeanor to live in a vehicle, levying progressively larger fines. But homeless advocates protested and the city backed off.

Since then, a working group of community members has been trying to devise a solution, and is scheduled to give its recommendation to the city on Sept. 11.

"Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, and we're not carrying our fair share of the burden," says Aram James, a retired public defender who has lived in Palo Alto since the 1950s and is a member of the working group. "We have to have places for homeless people who aren't out on parole who don't have a place to live."

Mr. Williams, the planning director, says the city hasn't offered its property for use by homeless living in vehicles because its budget is too tight to administer such a program. Lately, homeless people have clustered around Cubberley Community Center, in South Palo Alto, where they have access to bathrooms, but area residents have complained, he says.

One church has offered to help and other congregations are considering it, he says. Meanwhile, Palo Alto's one homeless shelter is full. "It's never enough," Mr. Williams says.

Mr. Varner, for his part, says he avoids contact with other vehicle-dwellers. "I want to try and lay low and stay out of their way," he says. "I know why I'm doing this and it was my choice to live like this." He says he expects to launch his new company—Kickmade, an online marketplace for people to sell projects funded through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter—this fall.

Being homeless has been stressful, Mr. Varner says, recalling the time a police officer shined a spotlight on him while he was trying to sleep. In the past few months he has learned to live "minimalistically," he says, and to appreciate the most basic things.

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