Heart and Home Collaborative, a nonprofit organization offering emergency shelter to homeless women, is exploring various locations for its shelter next winter, and on Wednesday, group members took their pitch to neighbors of Peninsula Bible Church on Middlefield Road.
The outreach effort was the first the group hopes to conduct in Palo Alto neighborhoods as it seeks to find churches to each temporarily shelter 15 homeless women during winter's harshest months.
The shelter was started by Stanford University students, and in 2012 and 2013, it was able to offer food, bedding and warmth to women who otherwise lived outside. The women were screened for tuberculosis and through a sex-offenders registry prior to being accepted in the program, coordinator Aparna Ananthasubramaniam said.
Heart and Home previously hosted women at Peninsula Bible Church and at University Lutheran Church in College Terrace for five weeks in 2013-14 and at other churches in 2012 under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization InnVision (now InnVision Shelter Network).
But fear, a misunderstanding of the women and a lack of communication on the part of the churches led to anger among some residents, particularly in College Terrace, in past years, according to board members and church officials.
This past winter, the shelter was unable to open due to a change in the city's permit process, Ananthasubramaniam said.
As a result of the tension in prior winters, Heart and Home is engaging in neighborhood outreach for each of this year's potential shelters. Rev. Andy Burnham of Peninsula Bible Church said church leaders sent 325 postcards to residents living within 600 feet of the south Palo Alto church inviting them to Wednesday's meeting. It offered the opportunity to provide information and take the pulse of the community, he said.
"Palo Alto has a long history of helping the homeless that dates back to the 1930s," Burnham said, noting that the city's police chief started a shelter to house people who came to town during the Great Depression. Twelve religious organizations currently take part in the nonprofit Hotel de Zink shelter, which moves to another site each month.
But Hotel de Zink can only help a fraction of Palo Alto's estimated 150 homeless persons, Ananthasubramaniam said. Hotel de Zink is also a co-ed shelter, and women often don't feel safe there, some Heart and Home guests told the Weekly last year.
The organization hires a professional staff person to be on site nightly from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and volunteers bring dinners and help with setup. By 6:30 a.m., staff has everything packed up and stored in a trailer kept on site.
One Peninsula Bible Church neighbor asked where the women go after the shelter closes, expressing concern that the women might hang around for 12 hours in nearby parks and libraries.
"I hear the concerns. I can't promise anything about what people do every day. But from my experience we didn't have a situation where people were hanging around here all day," Ananthasubramaniam said.
Most of the women have other things to do, such as going to jobs, attending medical appointments or visiting case workers. Many of the women in the past spent the hours at the Opportunity Center on Encina Way, where drop-in services give them access to showers, clothing and computers, Ananthasubramaniam said. About 60 percent of the women have jobs.
As for safety, "a typical night was calm. If something came up, we had paid professional staff to address it," she said.
Alan Hebert, a University Lutheran Church member who assisted with Heart and Home when the church hosted the shelter, said the church realized it made a mistake by not doing adequate outreach to residents. Fear played a strong factor to the opposition, he said.
Burnham and Hebert said they assumed the shelter would be accepted as a natural outgrowth of the churches' role as a sanctuary.
"We thought it was a no-brainer. Palo Alto has a long history of being a very helping community," Burnham said, admitting his erroneous assumption.
Added Hebert: "We got a great big slap to the face. If you are getting involved in bringing the shelter to your church, you'd better be involved with your neighbors."
After the dust settled, Hebert said the church had "a shocking number" of people who came to volunteer. Neighbors brought food and their children to meet the women, and a Girl Scout troop wanted to help, he said.
In addition to neighborhood outreach, Heart and Home organizers are working with the city to ensure the shelters are legally permitted. The group used to operate under a 45-day temporary-use permit from the City of Palo Alto at each site, but for longer stays, Heart and Home now is required to have a conditional-use permit, which would cost more than $4,400 per site, city spokeswoman Claudia Keith confirmed in early January.
But city officials are considering alternatives to the hefty fees, Ananthasubramaniam said. Keith confirmed that staff was discussing ways to lessen the financial impact, but she could not confirm by press time if a final decision had been reached.
From University Lutheran Church's standpoint, hosting the shelter did bring something unexpected. Residents who hadn't noticed the church before became interested in what it offered.
"Now all of a sudden the neighborhood knows we're there," Hebert said, adding that University Lutheran gained a couple of members.
The shelter has also improved the women's chances. Some of the women worked on the next step in their lives when they didn't have to struggle to find shelter, Ananthasubramaniam said.
"We wanted a woman who was at the shelter to come and talk tonight," Ananthasubramaniam told the group Wednesday, "but now she has a job at Costco, and she couldn't get off work."