The Opportunity Center takes stock
Center for Palo Alto's homeless marks five years of service
The five-story, brick-red building with brushed-metal balconies at 33 Encina Way could be a modern condominium complex or office building housing a Palo Alto start-up. But its sign, in block letters, speaks of the hope it was established to offer the city's homeless men, women and children: Opportunity Center.
Inside a courtyard, on a Thursday around noon, people picked over clothing on a folding table; others pulled belongings from a row of storage lockers. In a community room, job seekers sat transfixed in front of computer monitors, while other homeless men and women relaxed, knowing no one would tell them to move along.
A nearby meeting was punctuated by cheers and clapping, as members of the Downtown Streets Team — which employs homeless people to clean Palo Alto streets in exchange for food and housing vouchers — received accolades for jobs well done. Hopeful visitors to the daily drop-in services center hung around, waiting for a possible space on the team. A woman, fresh from a visit with her caseworker, emerged in tears.
The Opportunity Center opened five years ago in September to offer homeless and at-risk people housing and services that would help them get off the streets and on with their lives. Located next to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, it currently features four floors of apartments — mostly 100-square-foot studios — and a ground floor with a medical clinic and two separate service areas for adults and families.
Its opening was historic. Up until then, the city's homeless would gather for four hours each weekday outside the American Red Cross building by the University Avenue train station for food, coffee, bus vouchers, mail and other necessities.
"The initial idea was to find a permanent indoor drop-in center," said Dr. Donald Barr, a Stanford associate professor of sociology and human biology who in 1998 convened the first meeting of what would become the Community Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing affordable housing and services to homeless and at-risk persons and families.
But as Community Working Group members began talking with city officials about homeless services, the idea morphed into a housing-and-services center. Known as "housing first," the idea was to provide unhoused people with the stability of shelter so that their efforts could be directed to addressing other problems and obtaining jobs.
"A 'housing first' model had not been done in this area at this time. It was a fairly long learning curve," Barr said recently.
It was not without controversy, as local residents feared that a full-service center, with housing, would attract more homeless people to the city.
That dire prediction has not borne out, as bi-annual counts of the city's homeless population have actually shown a 50 percent decrease from 2005 to 2011 — from 341 sheltered and unsheltered persons to 151, according to the Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey.
And yet, the road has been bumpy, Opportunity Center staff are the first to admit. Simply providing the stability of housing doesn't in and of itself address the root causes of homelessness: medical conditions, disability, job loss, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and lack of affordable housing.
And given the instability of the population living in the center's 88 units and stopping by each day for services, problems were bound to occur. There have been complaints about noise and disturbances in and around the Opportunity Center, and sometimes people fall through the cracks and don't receive the available services, staff and police said.
But with adjustments in conventional thinking, many people involved with the center said the lessons learned are paying off.
"I see a lot of people who are more stable," said Lisa Douglass, director of the Stanford Law School Social Security Disability Pro Bono Project, who represents clients in disability-benefits hearings and appeals.
And though it has taken time, about 120 people who have lived in the Opportunity Center since its opening have moved on to permanent housing, with scores more finding jobs and receiving help for their problems, according to staff.
For Kathy Kronquist, 48, and Robert McDonnell, 43, a journey that began in 2006 finally ended with a one-bedroom apartment on Emerson Street on Oct. 1.
The couple has lived in a single room with a bath at the Opportunity Center since 2006 and was among the earliest tenants. Kronquist was relatively new to homelessness. McDonnell had been living in his car for four years, he said.
"My husband committed suicide in 2003. I lost everything; I couldn't afford the rent. That's when I became homeless," Kronquist said.
McDonnell said he and his father were asked to leave a relative's house in Pacifica.
"I was working for Avis Rent-A-Car to make payments on my truck so I had a place to stay," he said.
Kronquist's situation might not have been so precarious had she been able to get disability benefits, but like many homeless people, she didn't have a paper trail and was rejected, she said.
A surprising number of people who are eligible for entitlements are not receiving them, Douglass said.
And yet, said Opportunity Center Program Director Philip Dah, the benefits are key to some people moving out of homelessness.
"So much hinges on these benefits. These are monies that people have paid into. It would be very difficult for her to access that money without lawyers," he said.
The Opportunity Center helps clients such as Kronquist to obtain old high school records, medical records and testing to show they have a disability. A team involving a caseworker, medical staff and others assist in assembling a history for the client, Douglass said.
Stanford Law School volunteers helped Kronquist and about 60 others to obtain benefits they were eligible to receive, she said. Out of all of those claims only two were rejected at the hearing level, she said.
After three years of having their rent subsidized at the Opportunity Center, Kronquist began paying through her disability benefits. McDonnell contributed to the $707 per month rent by working as a crossing guard at Duveneck Elementary School, he said.
Getting Section 8 vouchers, the next step in moving out for the couple, often takes years, Dah said. Kronquist and McDonnell recently qualified for Section 8, enabling them to move out after five years.
"We've been on the (Section 8) list for seven years. We just picked up the voucher the other day," McDonnell said.
Since opening its doors, the Opportunity Center's management has had to reconcile many times between theory and the realities of the complex human condition, Dah said.
"The first two years were difficult. People had different expectations. In Palo Alto there were residents who thought that once the homeless were here all of their problems would be solved," he said.
But staff found that the public's hope to see 40 alcoholics regularly gathering in a room for a 12-step program never materialized. Many Opportunity Center clients didn't feel comfortable in workshop settings. And a small number of the city's homeless are not comfortable with coming to the center at all, he said.
Fifteen people showed up at a workshop explaining how to have one's criminal record expunged, but after being tasked with bringing records from the court, only three returned, he said.
Incentives were offered: gift cards and vouchers for attending meetings.
"They took them and left and didn't participate," he said.
What has worked are one-on-one sessions. Clients will return for those. Sometimes it takes three or four meetings before someone is ready to open up, Douglass said.
"When you've taken that half-hour to really listen, you start to really learn about their needs. You build a great relationship," she said.
Staff also learned they can't solve all the problems, Dah said.
Helping people with diverse needs and abilities is a difficult balancing act, he said. While one person may be ready to find a job, another needs treatment for his schizophrenia.
"We have to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks. For some folks who are really mentally ill, there is not much we can do if they don't comprehend the effort. You have to give them the basics: clothing, food, shelter," he said.
The reality is that those people probably won't be plucked off the streets and put into affordable housing at the Opportunity Center — at least not until they are evaluated and given medications to regain stability so they can receive assistance.
So the center staff learned, within the first couple of years, to put many of its efforts into what it can do best, Dah said. In short, focusing on the people who could — with help — help themselves.
"We have to identify people with whom we can achieve success," Dah said, adding that people must be willing to work on getting off the street.
"I think with that new strategy we have gotten a lot of people housed, with jobs and benefits," he said. Of the 348 current and previous Opportunity Center tenants, 120 have moved on to more permanent housing.
Homeless people who are seeking services don't always agree with those priorities, however, and say they feel they're not getting the services they need. One man who lives in his car said he felt services are given to people who have mental or drug issues but not to those who are homeless because they have lost their jobs.
Dah has said the center's services are open to all, but he reiterated to the Weekly that the center has had to focus on getting housing for those people who are ready. The majority of people living at the center are disabled, for example, and with help getting their benefits, some will be able to move out, he said.
People familiar with the Opportunity Center acknowledge that problems exist but credit the staff with trying to keep them under control.
Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns said when the Opportunity Center first opened police received a number of calls.
"There were some disturbances, some fights, but that has subsided significantly in the last couple of years. The Opportunity Center has drawn more vehicle and pedestrian traffic, as it is a destination. This has caused some traffic and parking issues. Noise issues occur with some regularity as well," he said.
Dr. Lars Osterberg, who collaborated with Barr to bring health care services to the center in 2004, recognized the public's perception of a center for the homeless.
"The NIMBYism was quite prevalent in the beginning and still exists. This is a common phenomenon in the development of homeless services, since people in the community have concerns about these being a magnet for the homeless and some of the problems this can bring. With help from important community members and adequate security, I think some of the concerns have been mitigated; however, some still exist," Osterberg said.
Dr. Francis Marzoni, executive vice president of Palo Alto Medical Foundation, recalled early worries about being located next to the center.
"We had concerns about the center's clients during the planning stages and met with (the Community Working Group), the city and the Palo Alto Police Department to see how we might mitigate them. Several of our concerns have been validated. We have had to beef up security, and we continue to work with the operators of the center. I think the center's staff does what they can to get the day users to follow the rules, and their residents have been great, with few exceptions," he said.
Aldo Gomez, manager at AutoPride Hand Wash, which is near the Opportunity Center, said the establishment has had a number of issues with people voiding after the business has closed for the evening. Some people also use benches reserved for staff breaks to do drugs, he said.
"We have to tell them to stay out of the property," he said of people crossing dangerously in front of cars at the carwash. But he said he has attended a couple of community meetings held by the Community Working Group and Dah has been very responsive to the issues, which have been getting better, he said.
On Wednesday morning, an argument broke out on the sidewalk on Encina Way, but Judy Frost, who owns Judith A. Frost Company said the occasional minor disruptions are quickly resolved by staff.
"I would have to say they have been good neighbors. If we've had an issue one or two times, we call Philip and he takes care of it," she said.
Frost echoed the sentiments of many merchants, including those at nearby Town & Country Village shopping center.
"Please don't put them in a negative light. They are trying really hard to do good work," she said.
Many Town & Country merchants also said they support the Opportunity Center. When it was first proposed merchants attended city meetings to voice their concern. But there have been few issues, they said.
"We've had a few incidents, but Palo Alto Police Department and Town & Country Village security have always been real prompt in responding," said Scott's Seafood General Manager Kim Ryberg.
"I don't have people sleeping in my doorway; I don't have people accosting my customers," she said.
One man does persistently use profanity when asked to move away while panhandling, but she said he was the exception. Ryberg also cautioned against attributing any homeless persons who might frequent the shopping center to the Opportunity Center.
"I don't know that they are from the Opportunity Center. I don't know if they'd be here if the Opportunity Center was here or not," she said.
Charne Morris, manager at Howie's Artisan Pizza, said that a homeless couple dines at the restaurant about once weekly and they are always polite and quiet, she said.
Ironically "we did get one report from security that someone was harassing a homeless person. It happened through the window here," she said.
Burns said that staff has largely controlled the problems.
"The Community Working Group has been very proactive ... with the neighborhood to discuss issues and develop solutions. The staff is more than qualified to handle disagreements and to set fair expectations," Burns said.
On a recent September afternoon Dah demonstrated that commitment after a woman began shouting outside the drop-in center. Dah rose from his interview and within moments the disturbance was quelled.
Drinking, drugs and disturbing or inappropriate behavior are not allowed at the center, and violators are asked to leave the premises, he said after returning, adding that he asks people to leave the drop-in center if he smells alcohol on someone's breath. The stringent enforcement is an incentive for good behavior, he said.
The center also expects apartment tenants to be drug- and alcohol-free. However, it cannot legally force people to engage in rehabilitation programs as a condition of receiving housing, some of which is subsidized but most of which rents for between $393 and $1,137 a month per room, depending on the person's income. Some people might use drugs or alcohol in their apartments, Dah said.
Staff also can't force residents to get help for other personal problems.
In the center's adult wing, a man was sleeping on the rug in front of the community room television recently. Debra Chavez, a case manager for adults, called his name loudly, but the man did not stir.
"He doesn't want to go into his room," Chavez said. "He is a hoarder, and his room is packed with stuff. There are three or four of them we are working with."
Given the issues of the homeless population, there was never a quantifiable goal of getting a certain number of people off the street with a specified period of time. But Osterberg said the Opportunity Center has been quite effective.
"Many clients have benefited from the services, and the range of services is critical for the types of clients seen. It is hard to measure all the benefits that the center has accomplished, but I know many stories of clients who would not be where they are now if not for the Opportunity Center. Some individuals and families I know would not have survived if it wasn't for the center. I also know of several people who are now productive members of society living on their own after having been supported from the Opportunity Center," he said.
John Chang, 32, said he would still be homeless if it weren't for the Opportunity Center and the Downtown Streets Team. He became homeless in July 2008 and remained so until December 2010 after losing his job, he said. He used the drop-in center services but did not live at the center.
Chang found work through a temporary-employment agency and worked for Sears, Sprint and Google before a medical condition and surgery made work difficult, he said.
Joining the Downtown Streets Team, Chang earned food and housing vouchers. He became the first person to receive a Section 8 voucher through the program and now lives in an apartment in Sunnyvale, he said.
Chang said that while the Opportunity Center worked to get him out of the quagmire of homelessness, some programs don't push to make people change. Chang said he thinks that while offering people housing, food and other services, each program should urge people to seek jobs or address other issues that led to their homelessness so that they will eventually unplug from supportive assistance.
He is still in Section 8 housing, but with education and a better paying job, he does not intend to use the services forever, he said.
"Some people, they get housing and they want to stay their entire lives. Some programs are good — they hold people accountable. If they aren't accountable, they rely on it. Some (programs) are a crutch. Section 8 can be housing for life," he said.
Chang has a job at a fast-food restaurant now and is working on his bachelor's degree in biochemistry at DeAnza and West Valley colleges. He wants to become a doctor, he said.
"There's a stigma about homeless people — that they're all alcoholics or drug users. They're not. I want to be a model, a poster child for how homeless people can be successful," he said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.