Palo Alto banks on nonprofits to aid the homeless | August 9, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 9, 2013

Palo Alto banks on nonprofits to aid the homeless

City also considers limiting public access to Cubberley Community Center

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto officials passed a law Monday banning vehicle dwelling within city borders, they urged members of the nonprofit community to unite and work with the city on a broad and compassionate solution to the problem of homelessness.

For InnVision Shelter Network, a nonprofit that provides shelter and support services throughout Silicon Valley, the call to action wasn't necessary. The nonprofit group, which operates the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue in Palo Alto and 17 other sites between San Jose and Daly City, has been working for months with other organizations to develop a solution to a problem that has become increasingly conspicuous in Palo Alto over the past year. Dozens of homeless residents have taken to living at Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto, turning it into what City Manager James Keene described as a "de facto homeless shelter."

On Monday, Keene renewed his call for help from the nonprofit community, saying that the city doesn't have the necessary resources and staff to solve the problem on its own.

"We're not going to make significant progress if everyone sits around waiting for the city to come up with a solution," Keene said.

The solution proposed by InnVision, in collaboration with other nonprofits, involves establishing a homeless outreach team (HOT) that would develop a census of Cubberley residents and consider the particular needs of each resident. During this engagement process, the team of case managers would "engage, case manage, transport, and ultimately secure housing for the most difficult-to-serve homeless residents," according to a white paper that the group wrote and provided to the Weekly. These would include residents with mental-health disabilities and substance-abuse issues, as well as those who have been living on the streets for a long time and have resisted services in the past.

On Tuesday night, Aug. 13, the council's Policy and Services Committee will consider this proposal as well as other ways to assist the homeless population. It will also weigh a proposal to limit public access to Cubberley and other community centers at night. The new policy would limit access to between sunrise and 10:30 p.m.

The report notes that with Cubberley open overnight, staff is "concerned for the safety and security of the Cubberley patrons, tenants, staff and the individuals residing on campus."

Some Cubberley dwellers get into "verbal disputes and physical altercations in the shower room," according to the report. Some refuse to leave the showers at 8 a.m. (showers in the locker rooms are open to the public between 6 and 8 a.m., but only the homeless use it during that period). Others use the center's bathrooms for bathing and cooking. Staff has also reported fights between individuals, drinking and drug use and trespassing by some individuals into classrooms for overnight shelter.

The report suggests an immediate response along with a long-term plan. In the short term, there would be an assessment of Cubberley residents and increased monitoring of showers. The long-term strategy would involve creating a HOT program of the sort envisioned by InnVision and its partners. The cost of such a team would be $150,000, according to staff.

The Palo Alto team would tailor a "needs and services plan" for each Cubberley resident, hold one-on-one sessions and outreach events for the residents and transport them to the Opportunity Center or InnVision shelters such as the Montgomery Street and Julian Street inns in San Jose.

Mila Zelkha, who works on InnVision's administrative team and who helped formulate the program, said the group has been collaborating with other organizations, including the Downtown Streets Team, Momentum for Mental Health and Project WeHOPE, a shelter in East Palo Alto. She called InnVision's proposal a "first pass" and said groups will continue to meet to refine a solution, with each agency contributing its ideas.

Zelkha said that while her agency didn't take a position on Palo Alto's vehicle-habitation ban, it acknowledges that both sides of the debate make good points.

"Many of the people against the ban participate heavily in our programs, including Hotel de Zink, Breaking Bread and Clothes Closet," Zelkha told the Weekly. "They are allies and they have raised legitimate concerns.

"On the other side, we're very concerned about the fact that there is a de facto homeless shelter at Cubberley. It can't continue to exist in the form that it is right now."

Zelkha, a Palo Alto resident who started working for InnVision Shelter Network in May, was among those in attendance at Monday night's council meeting, where members voted 7-2 to approve the ban. She told the council that her organization is concerned about the safety issues around the neighborhoods and at the community center and urged the council to craft a strategy for getting the needed resources to the homeless population.

More than 60 people spoke at the Monday meeting, with dozens urging the council not to pass the ban. Some speakers said that they have recently fallen on hard times and have no other place to stay. Fred Smith was among them.

"I recently lost my job, my wife and my house. I now live in an RV in a commercial zone. Please don't criminalize me," Smith said, before getting a round of applause.

Residents from Greenmeadow and other areas near Cubberley supported the ban and told the council that they no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods. Their argument proved powerful for the council, which voted 7-2 to support the ban, with Marc Berman and Karen Holman dissenting.

"We have an obligation to protect our neighborhoods," Councilman Larry Klein said during the discussion, which ended with shouts of "Shame!" from observers. "The dramatic increase in the homeless sleeping in their vehicles shows that we have inadvertently become a magnet. That has to come to an end."

Now that the ban is in place, the city is looking to work with area nonprofits to provide support for vehicle dwellers. In July, the city invited InnVision Shelter Network, the Downtown Streets Team and the San Jose-based Momentum for Mental Health to develop solutions that could be considered by the Policy and Services Committee on Aug. 13. InnVision also hosted a roundtable discussion in late July with congregations that host the rotating Hotel de Zink shelter about possibly expanding the program. The discussion has continued online in a private group, she said.

InnVision Shelter Network (a group formed last year after InnVision merged with Shelter Network) makes it clear in its white paper that solving the problem won't be easy, given the wide range of challenges that vehicle dwellers face. The group's outreach team has already conducted a preliminary assessment of the Cubberley campus, the white paper states. Its strategy includes enhancing the services offered at the Opportunity Center, including intensified case management and life-skills workshops.

Case management will be implemented to "more effectively transition unsheltered homeless people into shelter and other housing opportunities." The paper notes that some members of the community may be employed but "choose to live in their vehicles because of cost efficiency." They may not suffer from addictions or serious illnesses, the paper states.

"These individuals pose unique challenges, as they may not be in need of behavioral or primary health care services," the paper states. "Although these individuals may not pose risk or undue nuisance factors to the community, they also must be assisted in transitioning out of Cubberley (or other areas unsuitable for vehicular or unsheltered housing). IVSN is experienced in negotiating with these individuals and circumstances."

The white paper notes that while the program would be new to Palo Alto, it has a proven track record elsewhere in the region. The HOT system has already succeeded in East Palo Alto, San Mateo and Redwood City. It has recently received funds to expand to Half Moon Bay, Pacifica and South San Francisco.

The goals for the Palo Alto program include a census that accounts for at least 80 percent of Cubberley residents and a two-day Beyond the Streets event that includes participation from at least 90 percent of the residents. Within the first six months of the contract award for a HOT program, 20 percent of the Cubberley residents will secure "permanent, permanent supportive, or other appropriate housing options." Within a year of the contract, the number would be 40 percent. Ultimately, the effort would spread beyond Cubberley, the paper states.

"If implemented, outreach case management will target homeless individuals residing at the Cubberley campus in conjunction with a recommended City of Palo Alto night closure of campus facilities and grounds, with the ultimate goal of dramatically reducing the unsheltered population, and significant efforts undertaken to help to secure permanent exits from homelessness for the target population throughout Palo Alto."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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