Palo Alto's chronically homeless challenge outreach workers

At least 145 'unsheltered' homeless on Palo Alto's streets, according to survey

The number of homeless people sleeping outdoors in Palo Alto on any given night --such as Gloria Bush, who was found dead in a downtown Palo Alto park Saturday -- is "far higher than most would probably think," Palo Alto Police Lt. Zach Perron said.

A snapshot survey taken earlier this year counted at least 145 "unsheltered" homeless people living on Palo Alto streets, in encampments or in cars.

That number understates the total because it does not include those who sleep on buses or move from friend to friend, according to Mila Zelkha, director of strategic relations at InnVision Shelter Network. InnVision operates multiple programs serving the homeless in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue in Palo Alto.

At least 18 Palo Alto schoolchildren from 10 different families are known to be homeless, the Palo Alto Unified School District said recently.

The only emergency housing in Palo Alto is the 15-bed Hotel de Zink, which rotates monthly among more than a dozen host churches.

The nearest emergency shelters outside of Palo Alto are East Palo Alto's Project WeHope, the Sunnyvale Armory and Redwood City's Maple Street Shelter, which is operated by InnVision. InnVision's network of shelters between San Jose and Daly City houses about 1,000 people a night, Zelkha said.

Even so, shelters fill up in winter and waiting lists are common, she said. Exceptions are made in inclement weather, when cots are squeezed into offices or other spaces and overflows are given motel vouchers, she said.

Locally and nationally, the trend in services for the homeless is toward "intensive case management" so that people "have a chance of changing their situation as opposed to just being fed or just being sheltered from the elements," Zelkha said.

Such an approach at Palo Alto's Hotel de Zink Shelter -- operated by InnVision but hosted in local churches -- has resulted in 20 percent of clients graduating into housing versus "cycling in and out year after year.

"We work hard to build trusting relationships with clients, to help them engage and fully utilize all that we have to offer," she said.

But the "chronically homeless" are particularly hard to engage for things like intensive case management, according to a survey of homeless people conducted by the county in conjunction with the snapshot count taken earlier this year.

Bush was a regular recipient of hot-meal and grocery assistance, but rebuffed further efforts to engage her with services, according to those who knew her.

The chronically homeless represent 33 percent of the county's overall homeless population and differ from the larger group in significant ways, the survey found.

They tend to be older, are more likely to be male, more likely to sleep outdoors and have significantly higher rates of mental illness than the general homeless population, the survey said.

Fifty-seven percent of the chronically homeless reported sleeping outdoors (up from 45 percent in 2011), while 24 percent reported sleeping in emergency shelters and 8 percent in vehicles.

Asked what services might have helped prevent their homelessness, 37 percent of the chronically homeless responded mental health services and 26 percent said drug and alcohol counseling.

"It's such a complicated issue," said Nick Selby, a Palo Alto resident who has been involved with Hotel de Zink through one of the sponsoring congregations, the Palo Alto Friends Meeting (Quaker).

"What a terrible tragedy that somebody would die in a park in an area of this affluence.

"If we ever needed a reminder that people need whatever shelter they can find – good lord, the last thing we want them to do is sleep outside," Selby said.

Palo Alto Friends Meeting is the December host of Hotel de Zink. Other participating congregations, according to Zelkha, are Trinity Lutheran Church (January); Wesley Methodist Church (February); First Congregational Church (March); Church of Christ and St. Thomas Aquinas (April); St. Mark's Episcopal Church (May); First Methodist Church (June); First Presbyterian Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church (July); Christian Reformed Church and St. Thomas Aquinas (August); Unitarian Universalist Church (September); All Saint's Episcopal Church (October) and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (November).

One hot meal is available seven days a week through Breaking Bread, operated by InnVision but located in local churches, including Holy Trinity Episcopal in Menlo Park (Sunday); First United Methodist (Monday); Grace Lutheran (Tuesday); First Presbyterian (Wednesday); All Saints Episcopal (Thursday and Friday) and Covenant Presbyterian (Saturday).

Breaking Bread serves 90 people a day and has about 250 unduplicated clients each month, Zelkha said, with an annual food budget of $64,000 not counting donations.

InnVision also operates the Food Closet at All Saints Episcopal Church, where people can get two bags of groceries twice a week. Distributing food from Second Harvest Food Bank as well as from individual donations, the Food Closet averages 80 clients a day and 300 unduplicated people a year, Zelkha said.

The Opportunity Center on Encina, also operated by InnVision, offers case management, medical and dental consultations, clothing, showers, laundry, lockers and a computer lab. The center also has a number of small, long-term housing units for families and individuals.

InnVision operates its 18 service venues in Santa Clara and San Mateo County on an annual budget of $16 million, with about half coming from the federal government (including from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) and the other half coming from foundations, corporations and individuals, Zelkha said.


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Posted by RR
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 24, 2013 at 9:44 am

Things might have been different if she had been a whale. Like the Fin whale found recently beached on Stinson Beach. Had she been born a sea dwelling mammal and not a disabled elderly park resident of Palo Alto (sitting 100 feet from the porch of St Thomas Aquinas Church every day) there would've been a rescue crew, a hundred strong, good volunteers, a film crew, helicopters hovering overhead determined to save her. When will we have those resources for people in need?

p.s. By the way, she loved Shakespeare’s plays and reading the King James Bible.

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Posted by Gilbert
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I'm wondering if this my old friend whom we never exchanged names but have seen her for over 3 years Monday Friday as I worked in the area. She recently had been accumulating one single dread lock and had in my opinion rheumatoid arthritis in her hands !
Can anybody verify if this is my friend who was/is a happy and sweet lady who was so sweet and like a little angel whom reminds me of my grandma :-(


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Posted by Wondering, too
a resident of Monroe Park
on Dec 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm

@Gilbert: I have been wondering the same thing.....she used to hang out at the old Apple Store on U niversity. I have rheumatoid arthritis myself, and upon seeing her gnarled and twisted fingers I thought, " There but for the grace of God go I." One time I spotted her sleeping in a doorway on University, and I bought her a muffin and a latte fron Starbuck's. She was overwhelmingly grateful.

She was such a sweet person, I keep hoping it was NOT her, yet I haven't seen her lately.

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Posted by Don't blame others
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm

RR: Whales can't help themselves; people living in America always have access to jobs but many born here have too much pride to work any job available, thus immigrants who see this as the land of opportunity work hard to help the next generation. Our own Americans reject our opportunities - what a shame when there are others in countries who don't have such opportunities.

Sure, it's nice to be sympathetic in words, but those people should lend $$ and time instead of blaming everyone else for the homeless.

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Posted by GPS-Bracelets-Would-Help
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 24, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Without knowing the details about how this woman came to be living outdoors, and just how hard her family tried to find her, or help her--there is little to be learned from speculation.

However, there is reason to wonder if the family had made an effort to buy her a GPS-located bracelet, or some sort of emergency communications device? While these devices are not fool-proof, and do require batteries/charging--it would seem that if the woman were not totally crazy, she could have been convinced to wear one of these devices.

Hopefully, this sort of technology will become acceptable to families, and older folks, in the future.

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Posted by alwaze
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 24, 2013 at 3:02 pm

some people may not want to work because of health problems that are an inconvenience.but but instead of talking about why they are ''homeless'', why not talk about the right to shelter and food simply because youre a citizen.. and as a spiritual person once said,''even a DOG doesen't have to pay rent!''. its that western christian ''you must suffer more'' thing that rules the mores of this country. also, a great service needed is an all day soup kitchen where you dont have to time your meals ina small half hour window all the time. and more free resouce offices around a sporting ggoods store but for free. like a miltary PX. its a military police society anyway. Q

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Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Bru is a registered user.

I agree with "alwaze" ... "why not talk about the right to shelter and food simply because youre a citizen" Or a human being, or a living thing?

I disagree with GPS-Bracelets-Would-Help ... I imagine that (speculation based on other people in a similar situation I have know) that part of the way they look at the world, life, their decisions and their life choices, they do not want to be tracked or be part of a machine. A year or two back I was selling a lot of my old CDs, DVDs an Amazon.Com and had occasion to drop off packages to the automated Postal machines in the Post Office late at night or very early in the morning. There would quite often be some homeless people in the Post Office and I had a chance to speak with them at length on several occasions. These people have their own perceptions, their own ideas, their own values and make their own choices. They would not be my choices, and in many cases are self-destruction in one way or another ... but mostly because of how our society bulldozes over them and not really because of their choices.

One problem is that while most of these people are quiet and peaceful, there are a few crazies that can be violent or criminal, and shallow critics that regale us with their fiery rants tell a story conflating all of them into an exaggerated threat rivaling 911 in order to bolster their own self-importance and push for solutions as cartoonish as the threats they exaggerate about. Quite a lot of our political reactions, legislation comes out of this kind of process and is the primary reason government is so inefficient and clumsy ... and then those same people jump on the government for that oblivious to their part in it.

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Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Bru is a registered user.

"Gilbert", I think I have seen the lady you are talking about, and I guess I cannot understand the terms you and "Wondering, too" are using in describing her. If this was the same lady, she would sit alone on the street malnourished, smelling terrible, usually covered up with some bag or blanket so people could not see her. She had hair all matted never taken care of, probably with parasites and possible diseases.

I have a hard time spinning this particular person in any positive way. It literally would hurt me when I would walk by and see this woman slowly dying before the whole Palo Alto community every day. I think it is a shame that nothing was done in this extreme case, clearly someone who was in the legal sense, insane, and could not care for herself. Much as I support people's right of privacy and independence, in this case, if this is the woman you are talking about, it was a travesty that there was nothing better that could have been done besides neglect and leaving her out in the elements.

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Posted by ease
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 26, 2013 at 4:41 pm

contrary to popular opinion, outdoors people dont necesarrily have ''diseases'' due to uncleanliness. thye may have diseases as a result of poisoned technical civilization. also, some people never catch a cold in that 28 degree weather because they are educated nutrition knowledeged people ,former world travelers and well informed scientifically or otherwise and may have worked with well known people. this shows that in modern america anyone can meet problems that change them. also, there is very good reason to fear authority ,even ''helping authorities''. why? the very reason some became houseless is because of those very ''helpers''. how so? by not believing you had any illness that wasnt anything that fits their ''applications''. so ,no help for you--while they turn around and give those much needed ''resources'' to healthy person who has parties and girlfriends. there is no logic to the welfare state. if you dont fit every last application exactly you may not get ''help'' and guess what? things get worse and you end up houseless and dont want much of anything do to with authorities that were supposed to ''help'' you. you dont trust anyone who doesent believe you when you have severe illness that doesent fit applications exactly. you dont want to talk to those people. another thing, palo alto is not a gated community. until the signs go up that says so, anyone has a right to be here.working or not. this is earth, my home. i am not ''homeless''. if you have a california birth certificate you shhould be free from harassment at least. not an immigrant.

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Posted by Mayfield Child
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 28, 2013 at 10:19 pm

The day before Gloria Bush passed away, I saw her as I crossed University Ave at Cowper Street where she was sitting on a bench near the corner. I was with a friend and he was in a hurry to eat and run as he only had a half hour to pick up himself something to eat before returning to his job.
My friend was in a conversation with me as we passed her. I had seen her around town for years and she recognized me, smiling faintly and nodding a bit. I returned her nod and smile to her as I kept walking at a fast pace with my friend.
To find out later that it was her last day on this earth obviously has saddened my heart and left me questioning morals of people, their functions in our fast paced society in one of the riches places on this earth.
Some other comment was posted up about her and someone wanted to know if she was to have an obituary written..Little did this person understand that it costs money to post an obit in newspapers, which I thought I would never see. I wanted to thank this paper for gathering the little known life of Gloria Bush, just even little of the before and the ending story. I only wished it could have been a different ending though.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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