A City’s Moral Impetus

Palo Alto Matters – Guest Commentary by Greer Stone / June 25, 2017

Santa Clara County Human Relations Commissioner, Chairman of the Santa Clara County Justice Review Committee, and former Chair of Palo Alto’s Human Relations Commission

In 2003 the world was a different place. A gallon of gas cost $1.79, a dozen eggs would run you $1.24, and the average price of a home in Palo Alto cost $1,179,000. The world had never heard of Barack Obama, and Donald Trump had not even begun his reality show, let alone his career in politics. Yes, much has changed, but unfortunately, the funding provided by the City of Palo Alto to help the most vulnerable members of our community has not.

The City of Palo Alto provides funding to various non-profit organizations serving our most needy through a source of funding called the Human Services Resource Allocation Process, better and more succinctly known as HSRAP. HSRAP is awarded to non-profit organizations on two-year funding cycles. These organizations submit their funding applications to the City’s Human Relations Commission who vets the initial applications, and makes funding recommendations to City Council for final approval.

Current HSRAP funding is stuck in a time warp. Today’s funding levels match that of 2003. In 2003, the total HSRAP budget was $444,862; the budget for the fiscal year 2017 was a shameful $448,012 and the proposed FY2018 adds a meager $11,201. How can a city that touts liberalism and inclusiveness, turn its back on those who need us most – our impoverished, infirmed, elderly, and children.

What defines us as Palo Altans is not the number of zeros in our bank account, but rather the set of values we hold as a community. Today, more than ever, we must support those who are serving the most vulnerable in our community. The nonprofit organizations serving those people need our help. They need additional funding, but our City has failed to provide meaningful increases to HSRAP. These magnanimous organizations help keep people off the streets, nourish our elderly, care for our mentally ill, provide counseling and aid to young people; and they do it at an incredible value. The least we can do is provide them with the funding they need.

There has been much debate lately over the need for more housing in Palo Alto, and the greater Bay Area. Housing advocates in Palo Alto tout social justice as a moral imperative for creating market rate housing. But there is no moral equivalency between market rate housing and providing shelter for the poor, care for the sick, or counseling for our children struggling for mental health.

Market rate housing means market rate prices; it creates opportunities for the rich to get richer, and for more people in the top 5 percent to move here. To rationalize its dominance of the City agenda on social justice grounds is a perversion of progressive values. And to do so while failing to support the most vulnerable among us is a travesty.

Palo Alto can, and should, provide meaningful opportunities for those who need our help the most. The Palo Alto City Council has already been provided with several different scenarios on how to best help our vulnerable residents by increasing funding to HSRAP. These scenarios range from tying annual increases in HSRAP funding to an index, such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to an immediate increase of HSRAP funding to $644,862. That increase would reflect a compounding 2.5 percent increase per year from the 2003 HSRAP funding levels. Alternatively, the City could institute annual increases over the next four years in order to bring HSRAP up to $644,300 by 2021. All these options have been presented to City Council, and yet rhetoric has seemed to win over action.

The old adage rings true, “talk is cheap.” To those vulnerable communities we strive to protect, talk means nothing. Talk does not provide food or shelter. Lofty rhetoric does not save a child contemplating suicide. Strong words and idealism do not provide critical services for our elderly neighbors. It is action that in the end will save us all, and it is that call to action we must ask of our City Council in order to truly carry out our moral obligation of helping all Palo Altans, especially those least able help themselves.

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