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Cold hands, warm hearts

Lord Gym's warming center brings homeless in from the cold

Near San Francisco Bay, at the easternmost part of East Palo Alto, is a tiny shanty town -- eight crude abodes spread around a marsh co-habited mainly by Great Blue herons.

About a dozen "homeless" people have created makeshift huts, some living outside for as much as five years in what they call "The Field of Dreams." Each one has a story. Rafael is trying to send money back to his family in Mexico. Annette, aka "Shorty," acknowledges drug addiction has kept her un-housed.

Last year the marsh got so full of water that ducks settled in.

"I don't like the mud. It gets very cold out here," she said.

Asked if she would choose to sleep indoors in winter, if an alternative were available, Annette was quick to say yes.

Her chance is coming. Beginning next week, a new warming shelter -- dubbed the Lord's Gym Community Center -- is expected to open in a former warehouse on Bay Road in East Palo Alto. The center, open from 8:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. and accommodating 25 people, will offer a warm, dry space, with cots and a bathroom, according to Paul Bains, pastor of St. Samuel Church of God in Christ and a member of the group WeHOPE (We Help Other People Excel), an East Palo Alto nonprofit that is spearheading the project.

Nearby nonprofit Bread of Life will supply snacks.

The idea for the Lord's Gym shelter has been percolating for years.

"I have been watching for a number of years an increase in homeless people in this city," said Reverend Mary Frazier, Bread of Life Evangelistic Outreach senior pastor. Some mornings, when she came for early-morning prayer, she found people sleeping on a jerry-rigged pallet outside the church.

Last August, she and others presented their concerns at a community meeting convened by One East Palo Alto.

"Most cities say, 'Not in my backyard.' We are more compassionate, concerned with people needing help," Frazier said.

Out of that meeting a task force formed to look at which homeless services were needed and to investigate the feasibility of a shelter/rescue mission.

The latest count of homeless people, from 2007, confirmed that East Palo Alto, with roughly 4 percent of San Mateo County's people, has 12 percent of its homeless population, or 222, according to Rex Andrea, management analyst for the County of San Mateo's Human Services Agency Center on Homelessness.

Some are chronically homeless, while others are working, said Ysedra Mustiful, program manager for the nonprofit El Concilio of San Mateo County, noting that she knew of 43 families who became homeless due to foreclosures within the last six months.

And those are only the ones who came in for help, she added. Another 400 homes are in pre-foreclosure, she said.

Homeless people who want to stay in the Lord's Gym shelter must be 18 and older and will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, Mustiful said. But a key goal is to have an intake process where people can "plug into other resources," Bains added.

Bains recalled the old adage: Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.

"We want them to own the pond," he said.

Bains estimates that it'll take close to $80,000 to run the warming center. Step one is preparing the 2,500-square-foot space, which will be used recreationally for sports and dances during the day. Next is staffing up, hiring a volunteer coordinator and four other overnight coordinators for the shelter.

"We need staff who are savvy about problems and knowledgeable about the community," Frazier added.

Just weeks before opening night, much work still needed to be completed, from installing a tankless water heater to improving the wiring and adding a fire door.

On Feb. 24, the shelter's organizing committee -- including representatives from Shelter Network, San Mateo County Human Services, El Concilio and InnVision -- ran through a list of chores to complete before March 13, ranging from carrying insurance to buying cots and fire extinguishers. Committee members drew on their experience working with homeless people to create guidelines (such as how cold, or wet, the weather would need to be before the shelter could be open) and an emergency action plan. For now, they've settled on 42 degrees (four degrees warmer than San Mateo County's standards) and a 50 percent chance of rain.

So far, WeHOPE has a commitment of $24,500 from San Mateo County Human Services and up to that amount from the East Palo Alto City Council to defer shelter costs, including staff, rent, utilities and cleaning.

And Bains isn't worried about letting homeless people know that the shelter is open.

"The homeless people will get the word out; the Field of Dreams will get the word out," he said.

Lord's Gym is still in need of donations of cash, as well as cots and bedding, paper goods and plastic bowls, Bains said. An expert in HVAC is also needed to get the heating/air conditioning running properly, as well as a volunteer plumber and/or electrician.

Future needs could include adding portable showers and insulation, the pastor added. Anyone wishing to make a donation can call Bains at 650-207-1998.

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