The shelter opened Jan. 29 as a pilot project managed by the nonprofit InnVision and staffed largely by homeless advocates from Stanford University's student group Night Outreach. Like the long-running Palo Alto-based Hotel de Zink shelter, it is housed on a rotating basis by local churches. It offers services including case management, mental-health referrals, job counseling, some meals and other support, said Philip Dah, InnVision director of peninsula programs.
"It's a safe place to go at night," said shelter resident Vickie Boone, who previously lived in her car and said she escaped two years ago from an abusive home. "There are a lot more shelters for men and families and not many for single women. The Stanford students have really gone out of their way. They come and visit with us every night and stay overnight. They are there to listen and care."
With its emphasis on communication and connection, the shelter is based on a project established at Harvard University. Women said they are uncomfortable being in a coed shelter with men due to past experiences with domestic violence, said Marie Baylon, Night Outreach co-president.
"Many women are on the streets because of domestic violence and so have support needs associated with that. For women, issues such as reproductive rights, diet and post-menopausal medical care can become important," she said.
All of the funding — more than $25,000 — thus far has come from Night Outreach, which raised the money from student groups, individuals, parents, church congregations and InnVision, student Ricardo Pinho said.
Night Outreach members roam Palo Alto's streets to make contact and build relationships with the city's homeless population. The group has advocated for the shelter since 2010, according to Baylon.
Pinho said his role is to listen to the shelter residents. He and another "guest advocate" also maintain phone contact with the women and organize shelter meetings.
Dah said 21 women have been served since the shelter opened, and there have already been heartening success stories. One woman found permanent housing, and one is in transitional housing. Three women found full-time employment, and two have entered full-time work programs.
Pinho said the woman who now has traditional housing has full-time work and has other job offers. She is also talking about returning to school in the fall, he said.
Rev. Andrew Burnham, recovery pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, said the process for churches to obtain a city permit to participate in the program was far more complicated than anticipated.
"We originally assumed that obtaining a permit would require two to three weeks, but in the end it took around six. The Palo Alto planning department was very supportive. However, there was a somewhat lengthy process that included applications, discussions, emails, phone calls and inspections by the fire and building departments.
"As we discovered, when you want to allow people to sleep at a church, it raises a number of safety concerns, even though, as one woman pointed out, people sleep at church every Sunday! It's just that in certain cities, sleeping in the pews requires a permit," he wrote in an email.
So far, everything has run "incredibly smoothly," Burnham said.
"These women are not criminals or threats of any kind. They are simply people who have fallen on hard times and need a helping hand, especially during the current economic downturn. The building is always left in immaculate condition. In fact, this past Sunday, the women even mopped the entire building to make sure that it would be ready for our worship service," he said.
The Stanford students have also benefited from the program, they said. At school, there are times when Brenda Mutuma, the food and meal coordinator, said she doesn't feel understood by her peers. But she finds acceptance in "expressing my ideas to these women, who have a bigger, broader expression of life. These women bring me back to the bigger picture — to the reality of life," she said.
Pinho and Mutuma said their mission is about "compassion and conversation." And they want the women to feel welcome and loved.
"At any given time, we want to provide an environment that feels like less of a shelter and more of a home," Mutuma said. "That's what anyone would want."
The Hotel de Zink Women's Shelter is scheduled to end in April.