Publication Date: Wednesday, May 12, 2004|
Our Town: Oh, happy day
Our Town: Oh, happy day
(May 12, 2004)
by Don Kazak
Sometimes, there are reasons to smile.
Jim Burklo was. Before turning over a shovel of dirt at the Opportunity Center groundbreaking last week, Burklo could barely contain his exuberance as he spoke of the importance of the center for the homeless people of the Palo Alto area.
As former head of the Urban Ministry, the Rev. Burklo for two decades has helped sensitize the community to the plight of the homeless. Getting the center from vision to groundbreaking is a triumph deserving of applause.
He told the story of Lydia, a 93-year-old woman who lived on the street, and recited a roll of others who lived and died on the street: Indian Richard, Little Richard, Buck and others. Some may have camped under the El Camino Real bridge when that was still possible.
All eked out a life on their own terms, in the hardest possible way.
"I invoke the memory of those who didn't make it to this happy day," Burklo said.
Then Burklo and a half-dozen other civic leaders took turns with a shovel. In 18 months, give or take, a ribbon will be cut in another clichéd event, but one with the weight of a new building behind it.
Inside, there will be 89 low-cost apartments for people getting their lives back together after hard times, who won't have to fend for themselves on the street. There will also be two drop-in centers for homeless people to receive mail and messages, take hot showers, and get a kind word and counseling.
The idea for the Opportunity Center was born in the pews of two local churches, All Saints Episcopal and First Presbyterian, member-churches of Peninsula Interfaith Action. The churches' action led to the formation of the Community Working Group, which put the drive for the center together.
Don Barr remembers going out for coffee with City Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg five years ago to tell her about his idea for the Opportunity Center. Kleinberg thought to herself, "Good luck."
Barr, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician and Stanford sociology professor, likened the groundbreaking to the movie, "Field of Dreams," with its line, "If you build it, they will come."
The center is not going to make the homeless problem go away, but it might whittle it down a bit and, more to the point, save some lives.
"Palo Alto is my home, I am simply unhoused," Norm Carroll told the crowd. Carroll, a client of the Urban Ministry, said the center will keep some people off the street.
"I don't need more competition for my lifestyle," he quipped.
Burklo, who was at the Urban Ministry from 1986 to 1993, broke down barriers about how homeless people are perceived. I once asked him why he spent so much effort ministering to people most of the rest of us step away from or may be repelled by. Because they're people, too, and someone should care about them, Burklo said.
He started out serving coffee from a Winnebago in a church parking lot, euphemistically named Rolling Estates. The Urban Ministry in 1990 moved the operation to the Red Cross building as a drop-in center for morning coffee.
For 20 years, the homeless center lived in borrowed places.
"We could not find a landlord for love or money," Burklo said. "No one would take us in."
The Opportunity Center received financial support from the county and city, from foundations and corporations, and from people opening up their checkbooks.
Anyone tracking it through the normally glacial Palo Alto planning process might have gotten whiplash. The center went from application to approval in six months, which City Manager Frank Benest joked was "warp speed for this city."
North County Supervisor Liz Kniss was credited for shaking loose $2 million in county housing funds, and credit was also given to Hewlett-Packard Vice President Gary Fazzino, as HP kicked in the $100,000 that put the Opportunity Center's capital campaign over the top. Both Kniss and Fazzino are former mayors.
This was the home team at bat, folks. Now and then, it can be dazzling.
Little of the divisiveness that afflicts other projects surfaced on this one. This was Palo Alto at its best -- the good one, not its evil twin.
Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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