The number of homeless people sleeping outdoors in Palo Alto on any given night is "far higher than most would probably think," Palo Alto Police Lt. Zach Perron said.
A snapshot survey taken earlier this year counted at least 145 "unsheltered" homeless people living on Palo Alto streets, in encampments or in cars.
That number underestimates the total because it does not include those who sleep on buses or move from friend to friend, according to Mila Zelkha, director of strategic relations at InnVision Shelter Network. InnVision operates multiple programs serving the homeless in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue in Palo Alto.
At least 18 Palo Alto schoolchildren from 10 different families are known to be homeless, the Palo Alto Unified School District said recently.
The only emergency housing in Palo Alto is the 15-bed Hotel de Zink, which rotates monthly among more than a dozen host churches.
The nearest emergency shelters outside of Palo Alto are East Palo Alto's Project WeHope, the Sunnyvale Armory and Redwood City's Maple Street Shelter, which is operated by InnVision. InnVision's network of shelters between San Jose and Daly City houses about 1,000 people a night, Zelkha said.
Even so, shelters fill up in winter and waiting lists are common, she said. Exceptions are made in inclement weather, when cots are squeezed into offices or other spaces and overflows are given motel vouchers, she said.
Locally and nationally, the trend in services for the homeless is toward "intensive case management" so that people "have a chance of changing their situation as opposed to just being fed or just being sheltered from the elements," Zelkha said.
Such an approach at Palo Alto's Hotel de Zink Shelter -- operated by InnVision but hosted in local churches -- has resulted in 20 percent of clients graduating into housing versus "cycling in and out year after year.
"We work hard to build trusting relationships with clients, to help them engage and fully utilize all that we have to offer," she said.
But the "chronically homeless" such as Gloria Bush, who was found dead in a downtown Palo Alto park Saturday, are particularly hard to engage for things like intensive case management, according to a survey of homeless people conducted by the county in conjunction with the snapshot count taken earlier this year.
Bush was a regular recipient of hot-meal and grocery assistance, but rebuffed further efforts to engage her with services, according to those who knew her.
The chronically homeless represent 33 percent of the county's overall homeless population and differ from the larger group in significant ways, the survey found.
They tend to be older, are more likely to be male, more likely to sleep outdoors and have significantly higher rates of mental illness than the general homeless population, the survey said.
Fifty-seven percent of the chronically homeless reported sleeping outdoors (up from 45 percent in 2011), while 24 percent reported sleeping in emergency shelters and 8 percent in vehicles.
Asked what services might have helped prevent their homelessness, 37 percent of the chronically homeless responded mental health services and 26 percent said drug and alcohol counseling.
"It's such a complicated issue," said Nick Selby, a Palo Alto resident who has been involved with Hotel de Zink through one of the sponsoring congregations, the Palo Alto Friends Meeting (Quaker).
"What a terrible tragedy that somebody would die in a park in an area of this affluence.
"If we ever needed a reminder that people need whatever shelter they can find good lord, the last thing we want them to do is sleep outside," Selby said.
Palo Alto Friends Meeting is the December host of Hotel de Zink. Other participating congregations, according to Zelkha, are Trinity Lutheran Church (January); Wesley Methodist Church (February); First Congregational Church (March); Church of Christ and St. Thomas Aquinas (April); St. Mark's Episcopal Church (May); First Methodist Church (June); First Presbyterian Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church (July); Christian Reformed Church and St. Thomas Aquinas (August); Unitarian Universalist Church (September); All Saint's Episcopal Church (October) and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (November).
One hot meal is available seven days a week through Breaking Bread, operated by InnVision but located in local churches, including Holy Trinity Episcopal in Menlo Park (Sunday); First United Methodist (Monday); Grace Lutheran (Tuesday); First Presbyterian (Wednesday); All Saints Episcopal (Thursday and Friday) and Covenant Presbyterian (Saturday).
Breaking Bread serves 90 people a day and has about 250 unduplicated clients each month, Zelkha said, with an annual food budget of $64,000 not counting donations.
InnVision also operates the Food Closet at All Saints Episcopal Church, where people can get two bags of groceries twice a week. Distributing food from Second Harvest Food Bank as well as from individual donations, the Food Closet averages 80 clients a day and 300 unduplicated people a year, Zelkha said.
The Opportunity Center on Encina, also operated by InnVision, offers case management, medical and dental consultations, clothing, showers, laundry, lockers and a computer lab. The center also has a number of small, long-term housing units for families and individuals.
InnVision operates its 18 service venues in Santa Clara and San Mateo County on an annual budget of $16 million, with about half coming from the federal government (including from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) and the other half coming from foundations, corporations and individuals, Zelkha said.