Several years ago Norman Williams found himself released from a federal penitentiary with nowhere to turn. He lacked the means and the know-how to get himself back on his feet. And he didn't know anyone who could help him.
Then he met the Downtown Streets Team.
"Downtown Streets Team put me under their wing," Williams said. "Since then I've been working for them ... volunteering."
Today, Williams has a whole new direction for his life.
The nonprofit Downtown Streets Team provides homeless men and women and those at-risk of becoming homeless with housing, work experience, stipends for food and clothes and the opportunity to be part of the community through volunteer work.
A $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this year helped the organization purchase Safeway gift cards for the workers (or "team members," as the organization calls them). The stipend allows team members to meet their basic needs and to continue with the organization until they are permanently employed.
Having the independence and the means to take care of themselves gives people who were once down-and-out a newfound sense of purpose, said Eileen Richardson, the Downtown Streets Team's executive director.
"Before you know it they've built their self-confidence ... to a point where they just start flourishing," she said.
Downtown Streets Team was founded nearly a decade ago as a solution to the panhandling and filthiness that downtown Palo Alto business owners deplored. The organization was initially operated through the downtown Business Improvement District but became a separate agency in 2005 when Richardson took the reins. Today, the organization serves six communities, including Palo Alto, San Jose, Sunnyvale and San Rafael.
The 150-member Palo Alto team reaches out to the homeless downtown while performing various jobs, including sweeping streets, cleaning parking garages, handing out food to low-income and homeless individuals as well as providing peer-to-peer outreach. Team members work one to five days per week.
The organization also arranges for team members to live at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto, which keeps them off the streets and in the workforce, Richardson said.
Williams resides at the Opportunity Center. When he first joined the team six years ago, he didn't have a place to stay and he wasn't able to take care of himself. Downtown Streets Team gave him a place to call home.
To ensure team members work through the myriad issues that have contributed to their homelessness, each works with a project manager, a case manager and an employment specialist. Individualized attention rather than general services is what's needed, Richardson said.
"Very early on I learned that we could never be all things to all people," she said. "Even if we had the best clothes closet on the planet, we would never have a size 8, brown pair of shoes on Feb. 22 when this person needed it. You're better off throwing that person in the car, driving to Walmart and getting them a new pair of shoes."
That approach has helped more than 600 team members "graduate," which means they hold stable jobs and maintain housing on their own. Graduates have moved on to work at grocery stores, pet-cleaning businesses and even for the City of Palo Alto, Richardson said.
"There has never been a bridge between the homeless person and the resume services or the job training or the work skills," she said. "We are that bridge in the center that gives you the hope that you really can do this again."
Team members are easily recognized in the community with their yellow work shirts, which Richardson said are a point of pride for the members because, in their uniforms, they feel like contributing members of the community.
"They are starting to rebuild their dignity," she said. "They could have been down-and-out for 10 years, homeless on the streets or panhandling. Now they're one of the 'good guys' because they put that T-shirt on."
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.