But its revolutionary approach is drawing national attention.
Today the Streets Team has become one of the fastest growing "start-ups" around, ballooning in six years from a $50,000 annual budget to about $1.8 million — 10 times its second-year budget of $180,000.
And it is expanding to other communities — including a franchise operation in Daytona Beach, Fla., and "deep talks" with a major north Bay Area county about setting up teams there.
Its original director, Eileen Richardson, who started with one staff member (herself) and four team members, now heads a staff of a dozen, overseeing nearly 100 participants.
The initial team of four working to spiff up Downtown Palo Alto streets has grown throughout Santa Clara County. Team members now perform a huge variety of tasks, from cleaning parking structures and garages to cleaning up after major community events, such as Palo Alto's Chili Cookoff, the Palo Alto Weekly's Moonlight Run and the Palo Alto International Film Festival.
Teams are at work in San Jose — where the program just opened a new 2,000-square-foot office — Gilroy, and, as of Aug. 1, in Sunnyvale. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has given San Jose a "Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities" grant to clean up Coyote Creek, and a team has waded in, so to speak.
But the real distinction between this "homeless" program and nearly all others is that it is not a "deal with the homeless" effort, Richardson insists.
"We're not trying to 'help the homeless,'" she explains. "We're trying to end homelessness. We do that by treating them with respect and bringing them hope again. It's one person at a time."
Yes, people are helped, but that is a side-effect outcome of the team's approach, reflecting Richardson's personal philosophy.
In contrast, many anti-homelessness efforts "treat them without dignity," she said. Most homeless persons "just have to feel there's a place for them in society again" and be offered some stepping stones back — offered a hand up, not a handout.
Yet Richardson is not a soft idealist. She is energetic, plain spoken, tough when necessary on slackers and realistic in her expectations of people.
She knows not everyone will respond, and a few haven't, including well-known Palo Alto panhandler Victor Frost, who has been a candidate for City Council.
Yet most have responded.
To date, 120 team participants now have housing and 124 have moved on to employment in non-team jobs, Richardson reports.
She acknowledges that the challenge countywide is immense, with an estimated 7,000 persons classified as homeless — although much homelessness is episodic.
Richardson's enthusiastic conviction is infectious. She has won widespread community support in addition to backing of city officials. The program has picked up numerous awards, including the "Top 50 Innovations in American Government" award from Harvard's Kennedy School Ash Institute and the prestigious Tall Tree Award for nonprofit organizations in 2010.
Awards don't pay bills and salaries, though. In Palo Alto, Richardson has won strong backing from a group of Palo Alto-based developers — who have been pivotal in fostering growth during a critical time — as well as David and Dick Peery of the Peery Family Foundation. The Peery Foundation in 2008 committed $100,000 a year for three years to help the program expand from a single staff member to the present dozen.
The developers include familiar names such as Roxy Rapp (who has purchased all the Street Team's T-shirts), Jim Baer, John McNellis and Chop Keenan. Granted, there is some self-interest in keeping communities and parking structures clean and pleasant for visitors and tenants.
But their assistance has been pivotal nonetheless.
During one financial crisis, McNellis turned to others at a meeting and declared: "Everyone send her a check for $1,000 right now." The checks saved the day, Richardson recalls.
Keenan, who financed some downtown parking structures, faced a problem of about two dozen homeless persons sleeping in them. Instead of spending $160,000 annually on a security service to chase them out, he spent half that amount funding late-night Streets Team cleanup services. Team members make contact with homeless persons they often know personally, Richardson said.
One major change that Richardson notes with pride is the enthusiasm and commitment of the team members. Initially she had to check on participants to see if they were cutting out for unauthorized smoking or rest breaks — using her daughter's car, her son's car or even riding her motorcycle so they wouldn't see her coming. Today nearly all team members work hard from inner conviction, she said.
Richardson's biggest single challenge was losing her voice for four months, a silent frustration for an outgoing talker.
The reward is example after example of seeing individuals come alive again when offered work and help, health care through the Opportunity Center medical clinic, and strong group support expressed both daily and at special team meetings every Thursday.
One of Richardson's greatest success stories involves George, a regular panhandler who had diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems, whose panhandling trademark was his wheelchair, often parked near the Whole Foods market.
One day Richardson was bantering with him and said, "Why don't you just get up out of that chair and put on this yellow shirt?"
To her amazement, George stood up and began to put on the shirt.
"I had no idea he could stand and walk. I was just joking with him."
George eventually landed a job in a jewelry store. He re-established communication with his long-alienated family and even was invited to family reunions.
His health problems finally caught up with him and he died three years ago, a different man than he had been in terms his self-respect and contributions to the team and his community.