When temperatures plummeted in early December, the freezing temperatures were viewed by the Palo Alto group Neighbors Helping Neighbors as an emergency on par with disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
Concerned about people sleeping on the streets or in their cars, the group, based in Midtown, sprang into action. They provided more than 50 homeless residents, families with children and individuals who have medical needs, with motel stays. They distributed emergency supplies to help prevent hypothermia during the bitterest nights.
Recipients said that the services of Neighbors Helping Neighbors have been a lifeline.
"It's graced our lives," Susan Russaw, 68, said.
Russaw and her 85-year-old husband, James, were given priority for the motel stays this winter, Executive Director Caryll-Lynn Taylor said, as James must have kidney dialysis.
The couple lived in a one-bedroom apartment for eight years and paid $800 a month. But a substantial increase put them on the streets. They have lived in their 1994 Ford Explorer since Dec. 3, 2012, Russaw said. They are on a waiting list for subsidized housing.
The couple developed influenza this winter while living in the cold, Russaw said.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors provided motel stays and 11 days in a resident's cottage.
"We didn't want to spend another winter outside. Really, we were so lucky. They bent over backwards for us," she said.
Another woman, "Jane," and her 16-year-old daughter have been living in their car for the past 1 1/2 years after Jane was laid off from her accounting job. She was in her profession for 25 years, but she did not have a degree. She is back in college and could graduate with a degree in spring. A few more months would give her a double-associate's degree in accounting and business, which would mean better pay, she said.
"Finding work that paid enough was impossible. Unemployment benefits were not enough to pay the rent. I am the sole breadwinner. Ten dollars an hour does not put a roof over our heads. We decided on what sacrifices to make. The sacrifice was not having a roof over our head so we could get to something better," she said.
Jane's daughter, a senior at Palo Alto High School, did not want to leave her school, so they did not move away. Jane works odd jobs part time to support the pair.
Occasional hotel stays thanks to Neighbors Helping Neighbors have helped Jane and her daughter this winter.
"One of the best was the second week in December for two days. It was a Monday and Tuesday, and Tuesday was when my finals were. It was nice to be in a hotel room to study for my finals," she said.
When not staying in motels, Jane and her daughter use the emergency survival kit supplied by Neighbors Helping Neighbors. The kit includes a travel mug to plug into the car lighter to warm up soup, hand and foot warmers and a thermal blanket, which have made nights in her car much warmer, she said.
The weather crisis might be past, but Neighbors Helping Neighbors is still in disaster-response mode, Taylor said.
"The unhoused show the same symptoms as any victim of a natural or man-made disaster," she said.
In response, the community should address the needs of homeless and at-risk persons in the same manner as other disaster victims, she added.
Year-round, Neighbors Helping Neighbors provides food and services including a jobs network, groceries and chef-prepared meals and housing matches to individuals and families who don't qualify for other safety-net programs.
The all-volunteer group began in the Midtown neighborhood in October 2012 when it mobilized for a holiday food drive. In one year it expanded to offer its other services.
So far, Neighbors Helping Neighbors has helped 1,000 people, Taylor said. A core group of 500 volunteers citywide donate money and time to do outreach, find resources and distribute services.
At scheduled outreach events, volunteers help the needy fill out forms and do interviews to address immediate needs. Neighbors develop an action plan for each person, she said.
Homelessness anywhere, but especially in resource-rich Palo Alto, "is an unacceptable situation, and it doesn't have to be that way, as demonstrated by our small amount of resources," Taylor said.
More information about Neighbors Helping Neighbors can be found at www.facebook.com/NeighborsHelpingNeighborsPaloAlto
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