Originally incorporated as the Lord's Gym, a converted warehouse in East Palo Alto where transients could come and play basketball, it has grown into a transitional housing complex that provides not only food and shelter for homeless people, but also dental care, showers, laundry service and case management.
"The showers and washing (their) clothes ... that helps restore their dignity," said Paul Bains, an East Palo Alto native and pastor at St. Samuel Church of God in Christ who co-founded East Palo Alto's only homeless shelter with his wife, Cheryl Bains. "It raises their level of dignity back to where it was, and hopefully even better. ... When we mentioned this to them, we thought that was going to be a hard sell, but it went over like we had given them a million dollars."
The Palo Alto Weekly donated $10,000 to Project WeHOPE last year as part of the Holiday Fund, which is supported by revenue from the annual Moonlight Run, individual donations, and matching grants from the Packard and Hewlett foundations and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
This grant provided for the purchase and installation of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the attic of the warehouse that houses the East Palo Alto homeless shelter.
It also helped Project WeHOPE make a move toward becoming a year-round, permanent shelter, growth the organization is marking with a Thanksgiving celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 26.
However, Project WeHOPE is still in desperate need of funding and support, said Bains, who relies on a paid staff of 12 people plus 40 to 50 volunteers at any given time.
The 40-bed shelter serves an average of 300 people on a daily basis, Bains said.
ProjectWeHOPE is dedicated to a lofty goal, stated on the nonprofit's website: end homelessness in East Palo Alto by 2022.
Bains hopes to accomplish this by doing what the shelter's acronym-name stands for: "We Help Other People Excel."
At Project WeHOPE, this goes beyond providing a place for people to stay for the night.
Last month, Project WeHOPE, in partnership with the San Mateo County Human Services Agency's Center on Homelessness, hosted an event called Homeless Connect. For one day, the shelter was filled with 50 volunteers and staff from 18 community and government agencies, providing services and information to homeless individuals. There were financial coaches, mobile medical and flu clinics, agencies giving out information about housing, shelter referrals, healthcare and counseling services.
Fred Peņa has been coming to spend the night at Project WeHOPE on a regular basis since 2011. He said he uses the military-style cots to sleep on, showers, laundry and especially likes the small computer work space (a recent addition).
He said that he has seen the shelter evolve over the past few years and that "the light's getting closer," in terms of the execution of Bains' vision for the shelter to become a full-service haven for the homeless.
But it's challenging, when "a lot of (the homeless) have diabetes, mental issues. ... There are people who have been here for a while ... and 30 to 40 percent at any given time are ex-offenders," he said.
Peņa also said that Bains has put much of his own money into the cause.
"There have been times in the past where my wife and I and even some of the staff ... have come out of their pocket to pay for food and supplies because we did not have the funding to do so at the time," Bains said.
Project WeHOPE got its start with an initial grant of $1.3 million dollars from San Mateo County, but funding the nonprofit since has been difficult, Bains said.
However, the shelter has progressed from being open only a few months per year with limited services to a revamped, permanent homeless shelter.
Bains said that many homeless say that "the shelter has saved their life," and has allowed them to "feel secure, and reestablish hope in their own lives."
Information about contributing to the Holiday Fund can be found on page 17.