Larry Duncan remembered as voice of the unhoused

Thursday service memorialized life and legacy of Palo Alto man

Larry Duncan was a seriously modest man and a collector of many objects, from intricate three-dimensional puzzles to Hot Wheels. But it was his impact on changing views of homelessness in Palo Alto that shone through at his memorial service on Thursday, Jan. 30.

The service was attended by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, former Palo Alto mayor Vic Ojakian and scores of business people, librarians, social services workers and volunteers and the homeless people he helped.

Duncan, 71, died on Jan. 7 after a long illness. He had once been one of the local homeless, living among the oak groves at Stanford University, and for years he was their outspoken voice. He coined the term "unhoused," which many county service providers and politicians adopted when addressing persons without dwellings. People who live on the streets are not homeless, he would say. Palo Alto is their home.

Duncan's years of steely-eyed determination, wearing the Mexican serape and seaman's cap that were his trademark along with his full, bushy beard, helped change minds from ignorance about unhoused persons to plans of action. Those pursuits have resulted in some of the country's most progressive services and programs, mourners at his Jan. 30 memorial at All Saints Episcopal Church on Waverley Street said.

As an advocate, he helped create the Opportunity Center, which offers comprehensive services to unhoused persons, including medical care and psychological counseling. He served with the Community Working Group, The Homelessness Task Force, Stanford Homelessness Action Coalition and he was on the board of the Urban Ministry.

More than a dozen people testified before the crowd about his impact on their lives. They described a man who was as kind and compassionate as he was quirky. He was intelligent, devoured everything he could read and loved to talk. He was an intellectual, not an idle chatterer, and he had no qualms about letting officials know if their programs were not up to snuff, people said.

"He was a mass of contradictions, and he knew that about himself," said the Rev. Michael Hollingshead, who officiated the service.

The two men met in 1991 at the Urban Ministry's drop-in center. Duncan helped create a community garden at the drop-in center, and when it didn't meet his expectations, he called it "the Urban Ministry Plantation," Hollingshead recalled.

Duncan also represented the unhoused on a Palo Alto task force to address aggressive panhandling. He met with shop owners and service providers. He brought understanding to how people living on the margins did not have enough left over to pay for a tube of toothpaste after paying for a room or rent, Hollingshead said.

When Duncan won the housing lottery and was first in line for an apartment at Lytton Gardens, he said, "I'm alright. Give it to someone else." But longtime friend Faith Bell took him there to get it, Hollingshead said.

"He really, really loved these people. He would find somebody he knew he could help, and he would bring them to me," Hollingshead recalled.

Duncan gave away worry dolls -- small woven talismans that are popular in Latin America to ward off bad feelings -- to people he met in stores or on the street, said Bell, proprietor of Bell's Books, where Duncan frequented.

She couldn't recall how they met, exactly, but it was 25 years ago.

"We were probably both blowing our mouths off at a city council meeting," she said.

Duncan was born in Berkeley, where his father worked at the Cyclotron at the Lawrence Radiation Labs. The family moved to several parts of the Bay Area and settled in East Palo Alto in 1954. Duncan went to Ravenswood High School and formed a close relationship with Ron McKernan, aka Pigpen, who was later a member of the rock band the Grateful Dead.

An accomplished artist, he designed posters for the Be-Ins at El Camino Park, and he worked to bring music to Lytton Plaza.

In the 1960s, he helped build the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

Duncan's nephew, Eric Riedel, recalled an uncle who opened the world to him.

"He took me to places we could experience for free. He showed me all the cool little things in the library that most people wouldn't know about. We would go in the creek near the house looking for gold," he said.

Duncan thought they could find treasures, since homes destroyed in the 1906 earthquake were pushed into the creek, he explained. And the pair took "travels" together to faraway places by studying the terrain on topographic maps at the U.S. Geological Survey.

"I took all those experiences and I was able to incorporate them into my career and my family, and I'm passing that on to our kids," Riedel said.

Duncan was again focused on the creek when Palo Alto and Menlo Park officials announced plans to evict homeless encampments there, said environmental attorney and developer Owen Byrd. He and Duncan worked to prevent the evictions, but the effort failed.

"I saw the immense ache in Larry's heart. He knew the impact of this immediate eviction. ... He had immense compassion for people," Byrd said.

At the memorial service, the gnarled, wooden staff Duncan used was leaned against a fireplace amid flowers and a large, flickering votive candle. He often wrote sayings of philosophers and writers on slips of paper; some were his own, Bell said.

Among the last paper messages, found next to his bed, was a reference to the American folk song "Wayfaring Stranger." On Thursday morning, the memorial paid tribute to Duncan with a recording of the song by country performer Trace Adkins:

"I am a poor, wayfaring stranger

Traveling through this world alone

And there's no sickness, toil or danger

In that bright land to which I go ...

And I know dark clouds will gather me

And I know my way is rough and steep

And the beautiful fields that lie just beyond me

And I know my needs are rough and steep ..."

Duncan loved the patterns in the world around him. He was someone who would "look at a pond and contemplate all of its ecosystem levels," said longtime friend Norman Carroll. He would look deeper and deeper into those levels, and then skip a stone on it and change its whole composition.

Hollingshead thought hard if anyone could now take Duncan's place as the voice for Palo Alto's homeless. No names came to mind.

"No one can replace Larry as that voice," he said.

Duncan's ashes will be scattered at the farm of his friend, Heiri Schuppisser, homeless outreach specialist at Momentum for Mental Health in Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by typical
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jan 31, 2014 at 4:04 pm

typical thoughts. someone goes, is touted, and nobody steps up. its like americans rely on 'hereoes'' rather than taking action about injustice themselves. by the way, larry once said he might have to take up arms against the police, but stil nevertheless considered chief burns ''a friend of mine''. he said it with a genuine smile. in fact he sais the chief ''is a friend of mine'' twice to emphasize. you know ,the hippies versus the ''blue meanies''.he said he might have to get an ol' shotgun to go against the forces!

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