Vickie Boone lived in her car for several years, staying in Palo Alto's Hotel de Zink, a temporary shelter housed at local churches, when she needed a respite. But she has been wary of shelters because of past experiences there.
Once, while sleeping at the co-ed rotating shelter, she awoke to a loud bang. An out-of-control man was knocking over tables.
"A chair came this close from my head," she said, demonstrating a 2-inch space between her fingers. "And the bathroom thing is scary. I was the only woman among all men. One guy talked about how he was going to shoot us all."
But now Boone, who has long advocated for a women-only shelter, is a board member at Heart and Home Collaborative, a new all-women shelter organized by Stanford University students. It opened Jan. 26 after more than a year and a half of planning, fundraising and negotiations for city permits and insurance. Boone's dream-come-true can accommodate up to 15 women and is currently hosted by two Palo Alto churches.
Boone has other accommodations now, but she checks on the shelter twice weekly. Each night through March 30, the women arrive at 7 p.m. and receive dinner. For the next 12 hours, they can rest peacefully without fear of being harmed, she said.
Thick sleeping pads are laid onto the floor. On a recent evening, Darlene, a neatly attired woman in her 50s wearing carefully applied makeup and large hoop earrings, arranged her belongings beside her bed. Heart and Home has been a respite from the cold and a place that makes her feel safe, she said.
"I want to say thank you to the Stanford students who took the time to come here every day. It's the Stanford students that lift my spirits that lift everyone's spirits. The Stanford students have given their time and effort and have done it with a smile, showing love and in a caring manner, and they have been very supportive. And I am happy to be able to sleep in a Christian environment," she said.
Most of the 10 women at the shelter on Wednesday night were older than 50, and one woman who was new to the shelter is 75. Life on the streets is especially dangerous and hard for older women, and many at the shelter fear returning to long nights of riding the VTA 22 bus to avoid predators and the cold after the shelter closes, she said.
"We need a shelter for older women. We're the ones with health issues. We're the ones that suffer the most. We're not a bunch of lazy women on drugs. It's not fair to be a housewife for 20 years and take care of a husband and raise children, and when you get sick nobody wants anything to do with you anymore," Darlene said. "Most of us are on five or six medications. We're too weak to fight back. If Santa Clara County can have the Bill Wilson Center to house prostitutes, why can't we have a shelter for older women?"
Catherine Zaw, a Stanford junior and volunteer coordinator, said students who were part of Night Outreach, a volunteer group that visited Palo Alto's homeless population at night, began to gauge the need for a women's facility during their discussions with people living on the streets. Some students had worked in 2012 at Hotel de Zink. But the group wanted to expand on its mission and emphasize its values, which include developing friendships and respect with their guests, as they are called.
Relationship building has been at the core of their philosophy, along with empowering homeless persons, Zaw said.
The students, who work independently of the university, received funding through grants and personal donations. ZipCar provided $5,000 in transportation services, which serves as a kind of taxi service to get women to appointments. Pro bono lawyers gave free legal advice, and professors helped mentor the students, she said. Along the way, they had to learn how to set up a nonprofit, write grants, obtain insurance and navigate Palo Alto's permit process. But the greatest learning has come from the women themselves, from whom they solicit feedback about how things are going, she said.
Boone agreed the participation of guests makes Heart and Home different from other shelters.
"We try to make it like a hotel. We want them to feel welcome. Other places told us what to do. Respect is the most important thing, especially when you are homeless. You are like an invisible person when you are homeless," she said.
The shelter has tried to have job counselors available and to help women build resumes and word-processing skills. They are hoping to work with the free clinics to offer flu shots and enter the women into the health care system.
Linda Martinet, liaison for one of the churches housing the women, said the shelter has worked out well.
"It's been a very pleasant experience so far. We have paid staff and volunteers, and the shelter is staffed the whole time," she said.
Boone said there is a greater need for more churches to host the shelter, which is "dry," meaning there is no tolerance of alcohol or substance use. She is hoping that an expanded program will keep the shelter open longer next year, and perhaps, one day it could be year-round, she said.
"Even though it is only 10 weeks, it is really empowering," she said.
Zaw said the shelter not only protects women, it empowers them to take the next step to reclaim their lives. When one isn't focused on survival and is surrounded by encouragement and friendship, good things happen.
At Hotel de Zink, Zaw saw camaraderie grow among some of the women, which helped them to move out of their homelessness.
"Two or three were able to find jobs and rent an apartment together," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.