After two disappointing years of subsidizing the Palo Alto Food Closet and other homeless services out of its other programs, the nonprofit InnVision Shelter Network will turn operations of the longtime downtown grocery program over to Eileen Richardson, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team.
The Food Closet distributes groceries to homeless and at-risk individuals at All Saints Episcopal Church, located at 555 Waverley St. in Palo Alto. It is part of a suite of services InnVision Shelter Network has provided following the 2012 merger of San Mateo County-based Shelter Network and Santa Clara County nonprofit organization InnVision the Way Home. The merger created the largest organization offering services to homeless and at-risk people in both counties.
The Food Closet does not fit InnVision Shelter Network's overall focus on providing interim shelter, permanent supportive housing and homelessness-prevention services, spokeswoman Mila Zelkha said. The agency shelters 1,000 people each night at 18 facilities.
"The Food Closet is a wonderful program that serves a slightly broader population, and we are pleased to transfer the program among friends and colleagues, working with our partners at the Downtown Streets Team to ensure a smooth transition," she wrote in an email.
The Streets Team will take over bills and staffing by Aug. 25. The full transition is scheduled for Sept. 10, Richardson said.
The volunteer-run Food Closet was started in 1976 by local churches. They formed the Urban Ministry in 1984 to address additional needs of the city's homeless population. The Food Closet and Urban Ministry began having funding problems around 1995, which continued for nearly a decade until Urban Ministry's programs were taken over by InnVision the Way Home, which ran the program until its 2012 merger.
Richardson said she is searching for funding for the Food Closet. Her plan is to secure three years' worth of financing to stabilize the program until sustainable revenue can be developed.
The services themselves won't change.
"We plan to keep everything the way it is, for sure, and we'll look for opportunities for the Downtown Streets Team to help and get job experience," she said.
Members of the Streets Team -- homeless or at-risk individuals -- beautify retail district streets in exchange for a stipend in gift cards, to help cover basic needs, case management and employment counseling, so they can find housing and work.
Started in 2005 by the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, the Streets Team under Richardson has grown from a $50,000 budget to more than $3 million and 145 team members and has gone from one staffer to nearly 40, and to seven communities across the country, Richardson said.
The Food Closet has a relatively small budget -- about $50,000 a year -- and serves about 75 to 85 people a day, five days a week. It provides 21,000 bags of groceries per year to homeless men and women and people who are barely able to pay their rent, Richardson said.
"They are people who are at risk of homelessness. There are a lot of seniors," she said.
Richardson volunteered for the Food Closet for a decade before heading the Streets Team.
"I fell in love with the people," she said.
Richardson has a high-tech, venture-capital background and was the CEO of two companies.
The Food Closet is just one of four Palo Alto programs that InnVision Shelter Network has struggled to fund since the merger. The others are the Opportunity Services Center, a drop-in services center for the homeless; Breaking Bread, a hot-meals program; and Hotel de Zink, a temporary shelter that rotates among churches and synagogues.
InnVision Shelter Network has provided $587,536 annually from its other programs to cover the Palo Alto programs' deficits, Zelkha said in July. Only the Opportunity Center has any dedicated funding, receiving $125,000 from the nonprofit Community Working Group for operational expenses, according to an InnVision Shelter Network budget memo. That program alone costs $641,060 annually.
The City of Palo Alto provides $49,515 for all four programs. The annual budget for Hotel de Zink, Breaking Bread and the Food Closet is $171,940. Churches and individual donors provided $50,949 in the last fiscal year for all three programs, according to the budget memo.
Zelkha said it takes about four years to sort out a merger, and the organization has been looking closely at the Palo Alto programs for a year.
Longtime volunteer and donor John McNellis said the lack of support by the City of Palo Alto and its residents is one reason InnVision Shelter Network is dropping the program. And while Zelkha said the organization remains committed to Hotel de Zink and Breaking Bread, Palo Altans will have to renew their commitment to these services, he said.
"How wickedly underfunded we are at the (City) Council level," he said. "These are wonderful public services that are being provided, and they're not being supported enough."
San Mateo County and cities have financially committed to InnVision Shelter Network programs there, providing a broad base of support, Zelkha said. But that same support has not yet been achieved in Santa Clara County or Palo Alto, she said.
Check donations to the Food Closet can be made to Downtown Streets Team, Inc., with "Downtown Food Closet" written in the memo, and sent to 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto, CA 94301.