Felicia Clay-Freese and her husband arrived at the shelter Nov. 17, two days after it opened for the season. The couple has been homeless on and off since March 2011. Although they stayed at the shelter last season, they have continued to struggle.
"It's been cold outside. We didn't have a place to stay. We're running out of food on our food stamps. We're having a hard time getting a job, having a hard time washing clothes and other stuff," Clay-Freese said while sitting on the edge of her cot.
She has a history of homelessness. When Clay-Freese was a teenager, her mother met a man and "life got topsy-turvy." She ran away from her home in San Bruno, lived with friends for some time, and then joined her grandmother in East Palo Alto. At 19, she was working in Menlo Park but could not make ends meet and fell into homelessness. She lived with friends, on the streets, and inside the company where she worked.
"You get scared; you get worried. You don't want to go to sleep because you don't know what's going to happen to you when you're by yourself," Clay-Freese said. "Being a woman at dark and at night is really not safe."
Though she was the only woman at the homeless shelter on a recent night, she was safe and warm. Her husband's cot sat diagonally across from hers. He lay flattened and exhausted from work.
Their day began at 5:15 a.m., when they arrived at Labor Ready, a company that dispatches people to temporary jobs. They have washed dishes at Menlo College, cleared stores after Halloween sales and worked at Stanford University football games. But some days, there is no work.
"It's not stable income, but something's better than nothing," Clay-Freese said.
In the meantime, Project WeHOPE. (We Help Other People Excel), which runs the shelter, is working to get people like Clay-Freese back on their feet.
The nonprofit was founded in fall 2009 by Paul and Cheryl Bains. Paul Bains, a pastor, recounted the moment that compelled him to act. He was leaving the office one day and peered into an enclosed bike rack, where he saw a pillow and blanket.
He was reminded of a Bible passage: "God said, 'I was homeless and you didn't invite me in.'" The message spurred him and his wife to create East Palo Alto's first homeless shelter. Since then, they have mobilized a staff of 15 and drawn many volunteers from the community and Paul Bains' church, Saint Samuel Church of God in Christ. The biggest financial supporter of the shelter is San Mateo County, followed by the City of East Palo Alto and various community foundations. The Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund — which raises funds to support charities aiding kids, families and individuals — contributed $7,500 this past year.
In addition to the shelter, Project WeHOPE facilitates the Chaplaincy Program, which provides support to local law-enforcement officials and crime victims, the Lord's Gym Community Center, and the Technology Access Point Center, which provides computer access for residents and the greater community.
East Palo Alto represents a disproportionate share of the county's homeless population, according to the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, which conducts a semi-annual homeless census and survey. A count on the night of Jan. 26, 2011, revealed East Palo Alto had 46 sheltered and 385 unsheltered homeless people. While East Palo Alto represents less than 5 percent of the total population of San Mateo County, the city makes up 33 percent of the county's unsheltered homeless.
Project WeHOPE clients check in between 8:30 and 10 p.m. each night, after which they receive a warm meal and a cot to sleep on. The next morning, they are served breakfast before being sent off by 8 a.m.
During the day, case manager Heliena Walton helps residents take steps toward gaining permanent housing. She sees a variety of cases, from those who have been habitually homeless for many years to those who have college degrees.
Walton is there to lend an ear: "We talk to them. We ask them 'What steps do they want to take? Where do they see themselves? Where do they want to be?'"
According to the 2011 survey, 63 percent of the sheltered homeless were male and 21 percent were in families with children as opposed to only 3 percent of the unsheltered population. Sheltered adults had levels of disability lower than the unsheltered population with 15 percent reporting mental illness, 12 percent chronic substance abuse, 7 percent chronic health conditions, and 3 percent physical disabilities.
Walton helps individuals with mental and medical needs assess their eligibility for Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. She refers her clients to partner organizations such as Ravenswood Health Clinic, which provides clinical care to uninsured patients, and El Concilio, a nonprofit that supports job development, training and placement for people who speak Spanish. Walton is currently working with residents such as Joji Freese, Felicia Clay-Freese's husband, to apply for housing through the Veterans Affairs (VA) Supportive Housing Program.
Freese and his wife are waiting to get approved for a housing voucher.
"God has been good. It's been hard. We've been struggling on and off for two years," Clay-Freese said.
Volunteer Joshua Gonzalez can empathize.
"I experienced a level of homelessness in my late teens, early 20s. Going from my experience, I want to try to help other people because being homeless sucked for me," he said.
As a member of Paul Bain's church, Gonzalez was drawn to the pastor's vision. Since June, Gonazlez has been lending his technical expertise building the nonprofit's website, fixing computers, monitoring the computer network, and all other technical handiwork.
Paul Bains "has invested so much of himself into the people. He wants to change and enrich the community by having everyone pull together," Gonzalez said. "And I think he's a good-hearted person, and that's why I believe in what he's doing."
Bains has ambitious plans for the homeless shelter. He wants to see the shelter operate year-round and hopes to renovate the facilities to bring in showers, a kitchenette and meeting rooms.
The ultimate mission, however, is to put the homeless shelter out of business. Project WeHOPE's goal, stated on its website, is to end homelessness in East Palo Alto by 2022.
Bains acknowledges that it requires working in tandem with the federal and county government.
"Homelessness is not going to be resolved by any one entity. Even though (East Palo Alto) is 2.2 square miles, we're going to need supportive and subsidized housing to put some of these homeless people in, so that they can get the necessary care, and we can support the federal government's new model."
His zeal doesn't stop there.
"Once we end homelessness, we're going to tackle the problem of emancipated youth because many of them, once they come out of the foster system at 18, are couch surfing and end up homeless," he said. "We want to take our shelter and turn it into a facility to help emancipated youth."
The Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund is in the midst of its 2012 fundraising campaign. A donation form and more information are available on page 18.