A new women's homeless shelter that successfully opened on Jan. 26 at a Palo Alto church abruptly closed on Thursday after the city delayed issuing a temporary use permit at another church in response to College Terrace residents' concerns.
On Friday morning, Feb. 28, city officials finally approved the permit. The shelter will open at University Lutheran Church tonight through April 7.
Controversy over the shelter's opening sparked discussions at a public meeting on Thursday evening about stereotyping homeless people as well as the responsibility of the church and homeless advocates to be forthcoming about their plans and the nature of fear.
The discussion attracted about 50 people. Nearly 10 opposed the shelter, while most other residents in attendance were in support of the temporary sanctuary.
The Heart and Home Collaborative, a temporary shelter opened by Stanford University students, provides refuge from winter cold and rain for between 10 and 15 older homeless women. The women, who are mostly older than 50 through age 75, stayed at Peninsula Bible Church in the Palo Verde neighborhood through Feb. 26. They were to transfer to University Lutheran Church last night.
But some residents last week petitioned the city planning and transportation department to deny the permit. Many said they were unaware the shelter would open and that they feared crime and disruptive behavior might affect their neighborhood.
City Planning Manager Amy French said the temporary use permit was delayed in part to give community members a chance to discuss the issue with Heart and Home organizers and the church, and because of a missing signature on the application, which has since been signed.
The church briefly notified the College Terrace Residents Association, which placed the issue on its Feb. 12 board meeting. Concern among residents regarding a lack of detail and outreach resulted in two meetings, the first of which occurred on Feb. 19, according to church officials.
Some residents attending the second meeting Thursday night said they feared the shelter would become similar to the situation at Cubberley Community Center, where multiple persons in vehicles have in the past been living in the parking lots, and some persons had caused problems, they said.
"This is not a Cubberley," Bruce Christenson, vice president of the church's congregational board, assured the crowd.
The church decided to support the shelter in response to the city's request for the faith community to help shelter the homeless, Christenson said. Pastor Greg Schaefer said that providing sanctuary is part of the church's Christian values.
Some of the residents did not approve of how the women were vetted. Trey Deitch, Heart and Home shelter coordinator and resident advocate for shelter operations, said the women undergo background checks through the Megan's Law website to ensure they are not sex offenders, and they sign documents attesting they are not using drugs and have not committed serious crimes.
But residents who were fearful said the women's backgrounds were not thoroughly investigated. Some residents in favor of the shelter said a requirement for the women to have background checks is offensive. It is a burden of proof not placed on any other citizens, they said.
"You wouldn't automatically run a background check on your next-door neighbor," a woman said.
Deitch said that if anyone appears to be under the influence or commits a disturbance, hired staff on site would remove that person. There haven't been any outbursts or problems, he added.
Linda Martinet, serving as liaison for the Peninsula Bible Church regarding the shelter, said hosting the women has worked out well and without problems.
"The women are so grateful to be in a safe place," she said.
Other volunteers said many of the women work two jobs but cannot afford housing.
Some College Terrace residents said they have been in similar circumstances at some point in their lives. Others asked those opposed to examine their fear. There is a danger in stereotyping the women because they are homeless, they said.
"I have been homeless," said Maija Cruz, congregation board president and a Stanford senior in social psychology. "I was working three jobs and still could not afford housing."
Another resident said she became homeless after a sudden divorce. After going through considerable personal and financial struggle, she eventually found her way to a halfway house in Redwood City, she said. She now has a master's degree from Stanford.
"I remember to this day," she said, wiping her eyes. "There's nobody more afraid than somebody caught up in a transition and instability."
A number of residents wanted to volunteer to help the women.
College Terrace Residents Association President Brent Barker appealed for understanding and support from those who maintained their fears are legitimate.
"The risk to us is minimal; the risk to them is tremendous. These women are open to predators," he said.
Barker was on the citywide task force to solve the vehicle-dwelling conundrum, and he met with homeless vehicle dwellers. He was struck by "reciprocity of fear" during the encounters, he said.
"They were terrified. We had the power to evict them. The fear goes two ways and the protectiveness goes two ways," he said. "These are not dangerous people; they are desperate people."
City officials stated on the permit that the temporary shelter "would not be detrimental or injurious to property or improvements in the vicinity," or to the "public health, safety general welfare or convenience."
The program enhances the health, safety and welfare of unhoused persons by providing shelter in a supportive, clean and sanitary environment during the rainy and cold season, the city noted.
"Staff has thoroughly reviewed the request by Heart and Home Collaborative along with comments received from neighbors expressing concerns and support for the temporary use. Moreover, staff met with the host congregation and the shelter provider to review the shelter policies including the Community Living Guidelines and the Sober Living Policy.
"The site has been inspected by the fire department and staff finds that the issuance of the permit will not be detrimental to the public health and will be in conformance with the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan," the city wrote in a statement read at Thursday's meeting.
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