Holiday Spirit

Ruben Michael picks up litter in Palo Alto on Nov. 21 as a member of the Downtown Streets Team. For more than a decade, Michael has worked for the nonprofit cleaning the city's streets and plazas, which he says is his way of "giving back" for the help he's received in his life. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

Posted November 29, 2019

A celebration in the streets
Nonprofit helps homeless team members turn their lives around

by Gennady Sheyner

Sporting a yellow T-shirt and armed with a picker and a bucket, Ruben Michael and his four-person team of volunteers gathered at a Palo Alto downtown parking lot on a recent Thursday morning to start their shift.

In an area teeming with techies obsessed with disrupting the world, Michael's assignment was relatively simple: making sure downtown plazas, streets and lots are clean. For him and his three teammates, that's a point of pride.

"It gives you a reason to wake up," Michael said.

He has been at it for more than a decade, ever since he decided to drop in on a meeting of the Downtown Streets Team at the behest of a friend's girlfriend and added his name to a list. It was 2005, and his life had just spiraled out of control. Then in his late 40s, Michael had a drinking problem that he said caused him to lose his job and his house. He was sleeping in the bushes next to the Walmart in Mountain View and depending on churches for meals and clothes.

Today, he is going on 13 years of sobriety, which he attributes directly to the support he has received from the Downtown Streets Team. In exchange for the four-hour work shifts, he and other team members get gift cards for gas, food, clothes and other essentials. Just as importantly, after years of barely scraping and trying to stay under the radar, they get a sense of purpose and a community of supporters. As he talked, his supervisor, Darlene Berryessa, noted that he is now one of her best workers.

"It makes me feel like I'm giving back for all the stuff I've gotten since I've been on this team," said Michael, who now has housing.

Berryessa has her own tale of survival. Born in Palo Alto, she lost her house and was homeless for what she calls "two cold, miserable years" before she landed an apartment at Palo Alto's Opportunity Center for the homeless in 2006. Cheerful and enthusiastic, she also credits the Downtown Streets Team for helping her turn her life around.

"This helps me make sure I have food on the table and gas in the car," Berryessa said.

Since she and Michael joined the nonprofit more than a decade ago, the demand for its services has only grown, said Chris Richardson, chief program officer of Downtown Streets Team. When the organization launched in 2005, it was still possible to get an apartment with a Section 8 voucher, he said. Today, even some Apple engineers can't afford to live in Palo Alto.

To help those most in need, the Downtown Streets Team has recently revived a Case Management Flex Fund, an account that it uses to help team members pay for application fees, background checks, driver's licenses and other expenditures critical to their transitions from homelessness to housed. This year, the flex fund received $7,500 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.

Richardson said the goal of the flex fund is to allow the organization to act quickly and "have a huge impact with a small amount of money." He said he's heard horror stories of people who failed to get housing because they couldn't cover the $26 application fee.

"It's already hard enough to find housing in this area," Richardson said. "If you're already at a disadvantage because you've been evicted before or because you have no tenancy history in last 10 years we want to remove all those roadblocks. And if it's just a $26 application fee, we need a mechanism to do that. Having a fund specifically designed to be flexible is super cool."

First established in 2011, the flex fund has come and gone in the subsequent years, based on the nonprofit's funding levels. The Downtown Streets Team has used it to get members hotel rooms or other temporary lodgings while they transition from one place to another. Each payment is capped at $500, he said.

"The first thing someone asked for was a burial spot for $500," Richardson recalled. "They were terminally ill and they wanted something to have their name on it when they left."

The nonprofit provided the fund, he said.

On one recent morning, members of the Streets Team made their way down Palo Alto streets, picking up cigarette butts on Lytton Plaza. To downtown merchants, they are familiar faces. Some offer them free coffee, Berryessa said. One downtown shopkeeper gives each member a small cash gift during the holidays.

In addition to the camaraderie, the team members appreciate the structure that the nonprofit brings to their lives. While there are some strict rules (wear the yellow shirt; no jaywalking), they have the flexibility they need to get to doctor's appointments or necessary meetings.

Jeff Talley, who began working with the nonprofit more than a decade ago, is a Streets Team success story who wants to encourage other team members. Formerly homeless, he credits the organization with helping him look for employment and for providing a much-needed stipend, which supplements his income.

"We're here to set an example of what can happen when you get on the team," Talley said.

Not everyone on the team has stability in their lives yet. Shanen Way, who has been with Downtown Streets Team for the past four years, lives in a homeless shelter in Sunnyvale and takes public transportation to work with the team five days per week. Reserved and industrious, Way manned a coffee cart in Sunnyvale as part of a work program before joining the Palo Alto team. Despite the non-stop commutes, he called his experiences with the team "very positive."

The nonprofit tries to promote the positive atmosphere during its weekly team meetings, which take place every Thursday afternoon. Richardson said the main goal of the meeting is to hear from team members and celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

"For someone who newly joins us, if they've been years without that type of community, their next goal could be something like, 'I don't have an ID right now.' If they get up and say, 'I just got an ID!' we'll celebrate that. Because that's a big deal for them," Richardson said.

Apply for a Holiday Fund Grant

Nonprofits serving children and families may apply for funds by downloading our Grant Application Guidelines and Grant Application Form. Application deadline: 11:59 p.m. on Friday, January 13, 2023.

Make a donation
2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000


As of December 7th, 165 donors have contributed $145,397 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

24 Anonymous7,075
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Maureen O'Connor150
Martha Shirk1,200
Jennifer DiBrienza & Jesse Dorogusker1,000
Diane and Brandy Sikic*
Alicia Newman100
Dorsey & Katherine Bass300
Edie Kirkwood1,000
Micri & Bob Cardelli*
George & Betsy Young*
Diana Diamond1,000
Brigid Barton 2,000
Korol Family250
Lawrence R. Yang & Jennifer W. Kuan10,000
Anthony & Susan Wood25,000
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Katherine Bryant100
Barbara Riper*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Carolyn Caddes*
Kroymann Family250
Marian Adams100
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Elaine Hah1,500
Retired*
Julie & Dan Lythcott-Haims250
Tess & Eric Byler150
Denise and Jeff Simons*
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Harriet Benson10,000
Arthur Keller250
Cynthia Costell100
George & Betsy Bechtel200
Ellen M. Lillington200
Tom & Nancy Fiene200
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
Amado & Deborah Padilla250
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Merele McClure250
Joanne Koltnow400
Christina Kenrick1,000
Richard Johnsson5,000
Xiaofan Lin100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Jody Maxmin*
Diane and Joe Rolfe*
Diane Finkelstein250
Linda & Steve Boxer*
David & Betsy Fryberger400
Jan Aarts*
Judith Appleby300
Donald Barr150
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Edward Kanazawa300
Karen A. Latchford*
Kingsley Jack250
Richard Zuanich150
Patti Yanklowitz and Mark Krasnow100
Denise Savoie and Darrell Duffie*
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumbartner*
Marcia & Michael Katz200
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Dorothy Saxe100
Kieschnick family1,000
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Art and Peggy Stauffer500
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Scottie Zimmerman100
Fran Codispoti250
Ted & Ginny Chu*
The Dong Family200
Bill Reller*
Harry E & Susan B Hartzell100
Ann Burrell & Charles Smith*
Janis Ulevich*
Theradep Technologies500
Jack and Susan Thomas*
Julie and Jon Jerome*
Andrea B. Smith100
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
The Havern Family5,000
Gwen Luce and Family*
Bruce Campbell*
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Richard & Pat Douglas50
Susan & Doug Woodman150
Donald Price*
Judy Ousterhout*
Judy Kramer*
Kingston Duffie & Elizabeth Schwerer500
Roger & Joan Warnke300
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
John Keller100
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal*
Margaret Forsyth and Glenn Rennels*
Charlotte Johansen200
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Donna Silverberg100
Paul & Jane Millman250
In Memory Of

Walter Dean*
Er-Ying and Y.C. Yen250
Jack Sutorius750
Michele Wilson*
Bob Donald350
Leonard Ware*
Robert Spinrad100
August King*
Bob Simoni500
David W. Mitchell*
Paul Seaver*
Gerald Berner300
Ian Halliday250
Ray Bacchetti300
Marie and Don Snow200
Andre Jones *
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
David Sager100
Ted Linden200
Lily & Philip Gottheiner150
Chet Brown*
Phil Zschokke200
Nellie Perna Bartello100
Bob Donald*
Steven T. Ross100
In Honor Of

Marilyn Sutorius750
Darla Tupper3,922
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach and Thomas & Louise Phinney1,000
Polly Caddes*
Joe Simitian*
Gabby Perez & Logan Marsh250
Dr Ron Radzilowski*
Businesses & Organizations

Angelo Family Foundation 5,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Hearts & Minds Activity Center75
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Peery Foundation10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000