Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give a Hand to Homeless: Bring Back Community Spirit to Silicon Valley

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           I work in a high school that is located essentially across a swanky shopping center from a homeless shelter. The InnVision Opportunity Center is a local resource for families, and sometimes single individuals. Palo Alto is a magnet for people in need of shelter, with the train close by and more services available than the neighboring towns. If you were a woman in need, and could get no response from the folks at the shelter, what would be your next alternative to ask for help? Maybe Stanford Hospital, the police department, or even a nearby school?

            One late spring evening I stayed late to catch up on my work. It was the day after our school-wide service day, one of my signature efforts for the year. A former student poked his head in the door, introducing me to his girlfriend whom he was touring around his old alma mater. Then he said in passing, “And, oh, by the way, did you know there is a homeless lady down the hall in the kitchen?” The entire building was closed, except for a door leading from the staff lounge/kitchen to the lacrosse field where our team was playing. I took my time, because I wrongly felt that I had already done my duty by orchestrating the Service Day activities for hundreds of students and dozens of nonprofit organizations.

            But “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and I had no right to discriminate between this woman's situation and the needs of the organizations our students had worked to benefit. The thought that there was someone with no place to sleep that night haunted me out of my office and into the hallway of the Tower Building.

            “Hi, are you looking for someone?” I inquired of the unkempt middle-aged woman sitting at a table in the staff lounge.

            “Hi, I’m Colleen. I got turned away at the shelter and I’m looking for a place to stay tonight.”

            I stepped out of the kitchen, into the doorway looking onto the lacrosse field. Nightfall brought unusually crisp temperatures tonight.

            “I’m not sure if I can help, but I’ll try. Do you have any identification? A cell phone?” Colleen showed me the contents of her purse, which contained a passport, comb, and other items that looked of little use. “Hang onto that passport, it’s like gold for you right now.” Colleen told me she knew that it was her only worthwhile possession. She also explained that the reason she had no belongings was that she had gotten mixed up with a bad person and she had to flee. We talked about whether she needed to go to the hospital. She told me she had already been, and they had discharged her. At this point, I could tell she had mental health issues and I knew I was way out of my element. Colleen needed to get to a place where there were professionals who could counsel and guide her—not a high school staff member.

            In the end, I rallied two students, Audrie and Claire, by Facebook alert, as they just happened to be over at the lacrosse match. Claire is a regular volunteer at the shelter, so between her and the friend, and myself all calling shelters around town on a Friday night and wishing for someone, anyone to answer the phone—we finally found a place for Colleen. We loaded her into a taxi with instructions for the driver to call us when he had safely delivered her to the shelter downtown San Jose.

            We had given this tender woman our cell phone numbers, email addresses, but never heard from her after that chilly springtime evening. I was grateful that she didn’t have to spent that particular night outside—but regretted her problem wouldn’t be relieved with one taxi ride. There are others like Colleen, such as Cathryn, who came to the very same hallway exactly one month later. I have a story about Cathryn too, rolling her suitcase through the Tower Building. I tried to shy away again, but knew this situation was staring me in the face for a reason. By connecting mentally challenged and middle-aged Cathryn to a couple of fellow shelter seekers, I watched the spirit of community facilitate good works as the more seasoned pair warmly offered to escort Cathryn to the shuttle that would deliver her to a warm bed for the weekend in East Palo Alto.

            It’s a season away, and I think about these two ladies a lot, and the profound message affecting me, as with other experiences helping others from the shelter-seeking population. Silicon Valley didn’t used to be the way it is, with every man (woman) for himself or herself. I grew up here when we were buoyed daily by true community spirit.  I wish for that former sense of care, when the valley wasn’t driven by manic entrepreneurs in search of the next big idea. The first concept that helped us grow into what we’ve become started with welcoming all and taking care of each other. 

NEWS FLASH Fall 2014: Board of Supervisors takes action

Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team Success Story!

Get Involved: Community Working Group with Opportunity Center, Palo Alto

Get Involved: Volunteer at InnVision in the Bay Area

LifeBuzz: They Asked Homeless People To Write Down A Fact About Themselves…

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