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Housing for good

In 2006, a Palo Alto group started housing the homeless. Here's how that radical experiment has turned out.

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For four years, Evan Davis made Palo Alto's Rinconada Park his home. It was challenging — especially in the winter when the rains came, making sleep difficult, he recalled.

"I had a spot where I kept dry," he said. "With food stamps, I could eat."

Today, Davis — neatly dressed on a recent Tuesday in a button-up shirt, dark jeans and gray athletic shoes — has a warm place to sleep. In his tidy apartment is his bed, a desk where he works on his laptop and window sills decorated with his beloved cat figurines.

It's much like any other studio in the area, save perhaps for the note he's pinned to his bulletin board as a reminder to himself: "Rent $354."

Davis' new address is 33 Encina Ave., Palo Alto, better known as the Opportunity Center.

Now in its 10th year, the Opportunity Center provides help to the area's homeless population — people like Davis, a former building manager. Known as "the OC" to its denizens, it's a housing complex of 70 studios, 12 one-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom apartments; two drop-in centers, where people can get everything from access to computers to case management from the nonprofit LifeMoves; and a medical clinic, Peninsula HealthCare Connection, which is staffed by medical volunteers.

The concept for the center was birthed in the late 1990s, when members of the Palo Alto nonprofit Community Working Group seized upon a radical new idea of giving homeless people housing with few questions asked and few requirements made of them.

When the $25 million tomato-red, five-story facility opened in September 2006, it represented nothing short of a huge, educated gamble: The "housing first" model wagered that for chronically homeless people to get off the streets and stay off the streets, they needed to have the stability of housing before they would be able to address their entrenched problems. According to research, two-thirds of homeless adults have mental illness or addictions.

"Housing first was 'We realize you have alcohol or drug problems and that's what has led you to be on the street. ... We're going to support you in the housing so long as you don't provide a danger to others or break the law,'" said Palo Alto resident Don Barr, who spearheaded the Community Working Group with fellow resident Litsie Indergand and others.

It was an idea that some people said wouldn't work, and others said shouldn't even be tried. Community members voiced fears that the center would attract homeless people from far and wide, turning Palo Alto into a Mecca for the unhoused.

Even service providers were skeptical. Up until then, programs for the homeless either provided nightly shelter or required people to be actively conquering their problems in exchange for housing beyond a single night.

The housing-first model was not just untested in Palo Alto and Santa Clara County in the early 2000s, it was fairly new for the entire nation.

"Different cities around the country started trying it, and each time they did it, it showed that you get much better success by putting people into housing first and then dealing with their other personal problems," said Barr, a Stanford physician and professor of sociology.

So how has Palo Alto's grand experiment turned out? Staff and volunteers are the first to admit there's been a steep learning curve. The city's fire and police departments are both called about once a week to handle medical emergencies, disturbances and crimes either serious or minor at the drop-in center and the residences. (See statistics in the photos section of this story.)

Among the tenants, there have been evictions. And some people's deeply rooted problems can't, it turns out, be solved — only managed.

But lessons have been learned and new strategies are being deployed. As the OC enters its 11th year, those leading it are doubling down. The Community Working Group, which has overseen the housing portion through a general partnership with the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County, is readying to take ownership of the facility from the county by the end of this year.

To do so, on April 1, it launched an alliance with the nonprofit Abode Services, the largest homeless-services provider in the Bay Area. With more centralized control, the leaders anticipate a more nimble and better-resourced operation with a greater ability to accomplish their mission — moving homeless people into housing for good.

Different types of homeless people

A recent Santa Clara County study on the cost of homelessness found that unhoused people generally fall into three categories, according to Ky Le, the executive director of the county's three-year-old Office for Supportive Housing. The first is a person who doesn't need much aid and regains housing on his or her own. This person may ask for help with a rent deposit or a temporary stay at a motel.

The second group of people require longer-term rental assistance as well as services to help them maintain housing, but after three to 12 months, they're able to stabilize their lives, Le said.

Then there's the small group of people who need permanent subsidies and services because they have disabling conditions, Le said. The county report labeled them "persistently homeless." Though they account for only 5 percent of the county's homeless population, their use of public and medical services totals nearly half of the population's costs — or more than $100,000 each person per year.

The Opportunity Center has housed all three categories of homeless people.

"We certainly have residents now and have had residents before who have, as the story goes, fallen on hard times. But they're professionals and they have job experience, and once here they get on their feet," said Pamela Law, property manager for the John Stewart Company, which has run the Opportunity Center's housing since January 2015.

Earlier this month, a woman and her son moved out after having resided at the center for less than a year, according to Law.

"She and her son were living in a car. She already had a good job. They got on their feet, and they moved to a family apartment," Law said. "It's a success story."

On the other hand, 20 of the apartments are leased to people who moved in in 2006 and simply haven't moved out.

"A lot of the original residents, they have a lot of trauma. Either that's how they got on the streets or that is what they experienced on the street, and you know that's not going to go away," Law said.

Many residents fall somewhere in between. Davis, who moved in from Rinconada Park in 2010, said he is looking forward to this October, when he will receive what's known as a portable Section 8 voucher. With that he will be able to leave the Opportunity Center but still receive a Housing Authority rent subsidy.

"I think it's time to move out and let someone else get my starter apartment," said Davis, who has limited sight in both eyes but is optimistic about the change.

Another resident, Mae Law, has been at the Opportunity Center since 2008. In that time, the Santa Cruz native has received care from the on-site doctor and psychiatrist and guidance on her resume. She's also participating in the smoking-cessation program.

Alacia Hafner, a mother of two from Jamaica, fled from domestic violence and moved into the Opportunity Center in 2010. She's taken advantage of numerous services as she's gotten stabilized.

"There's no one 'homeless person' typology," said John Barton, president of the board of the Community Working Group. "They come with talents and skills and aspirations, and they are uniquely different — and that makes them a challenge to serve."

Housing for as long as it takes

The fact that people can live in the OC for as long as it takes is one of the most significant differences between this model and an approach that became popular across the nation in the 1990s, known as transitional housing.

With transitional housing, said Le of the Office of Supportive Housing, homeless people are required to participate in services that will help them become more self-sufficient, and they're given housing for a year or two. At the end of the program, they're expected to move on to other housing.

The approach works for people who have jobs or other resources, Le said, but not for those with chronic and serious problems: They may not be much closer to being able to pay rent at the end of their stay than they were at the start. Once out of the program, they just end up homeless again.

At the Opportunity Center, in addition to the 20 original households, Pamela Law said that another 36 households' tenants moved in between 2007 and 2014 and remain today — including Davis, Hafner and Mae Law.

"For some people, it's the stepping stone, and for others it's a great place to land," said Pamela Law.

It wasn't quite what members of the Community Working Group expected to happen, Barton said.

"I think if you had asked us in 2006 or 2007 or the previous six years, we would have thought that people would have stayed a year or two years and then moved somewhere else," he said.

But for folks who rely on the center's safety net of services, "moving might not necessarily be what's best for them," he added.

In addition, tenants whose children are enrolled in the Palo Alto Unified School District often want to stay in the city, Law noted.

"We have two or three residents who have been here for a very long time, and they have excellent jobs. But they have children, and where can you afford (to live) in Palo Alto even on an excellent income? So they're still here," she said.

These days, a half-dozen apartments at most become vacant a year, Law estimated. (The total number of people or families who've lived in the center over its 10-year history hasn't been compiled, but by extrapolating that turnover rate, there have probably been about 150 households who've resided in the center's 88 apartments.)

Though residents face no time limit on their leases, they have to pay their rent, observe the facility's health and safety regulations and not do anything illegal in the apartment.

A problem unique to the homeless population, which center staff have had to keep a strict eye on, is visitors. Each tenant can have visitors stay for 14 days per year. Residents with friends who are still homeless say it's not enough, but there are legal reasons for the limits.

"Even though sharing is what they do on the streets, it doesn't work in this environment," said Warren Reed, vice president of the John Stewart Company, which is the largest affordable-housing provider in California and manages more than 5,300 units in the south bay.

Tax laws governing how the center is funded dictate how many people are allowed per household and what the household income can be, he said.

In addition, health and hygiene problems arise with some visitors. Law said the center has taken to bringing a dog in each month to sniff for bed bugs.

There also have been safety problems related to strangers in the building: In 2013, a female tenant was severely beaten by the drunken guest of another resident.

When it comes to potential evictions, the property management and LifeMoves staff bend over backward to try to help people change their behaviors so that they don't end up evicted and homeless again, Law said.

Several years ago a tenant in his late 60s had a serious hoarding disorder and his room was getting to be unsafe, Barr recalled. An Adult Protective Services worker stepped in, and the county used its authority to give temporary guardianship of the man to someone else and to have him hospitalized. His room was cleaned and new criteria set for his behavior, and he was able to move back in, Barr said.

Unfortunately, the man continued to hoard and then died of natural causes the next year. But at least, Barr said, he died in his room rather than on the street.

Going mainstream

Advocates of the housing-first model are fond of studies that show the cost of housing homeless people is actually far less than the cost of serving them through emergency rooms, jails and other public institutions where people in crisis wind up.

One study found that formerly homeless tenants in a Seattle, Washington, program after six months were costing an average of $2,449 a month less per person in public services.

That's one reason why cities, counties and even federal agencies are now pursuing housing projects like the Opportunity Center. The strategy that a decade ago was an outlier has gradually become mainstream, evolving into what's more broadly known as "permanent supportive housing."

"Permanent supportive housing is widely recognized as the solution for people facing the greatest challenges to housing stability including serious and persistent physical and behavioral health problems," states the 2015 United States Interagency Council on Homelessness' strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. "Permanent supportive housing also costs less than allowing people to continue to cycle through public systems."

Research acknowledges the effectiveness of the model: 84 percent of people who are placed in permanent supportive housing stay housed, even after they leave.

Following the lead of the Opportunity Center, San Jose and other cities are bringing permanent supportive housing projects online. In San Jose alone there are three projects that will be 100 percent permanent supportive housing and others with a portion of the units set aside for the homeless, Le said.

He predicted that within five years, these housing projects will significantly decrease the number of homeless people in the county, which in 2015 stood at about 6,560.

In the meantime, the Opportunity Center has a list of about 90 people hoping to get in, some who've been waiting since 2012. The county Housing Authority has a separate list of applicants for Section 8 vouchers.

How quickly anyone new will be able to move in depends in part on how quickly people like Davis and Mae Law, who will also qualify for a Section 8 voucher in October, can find a place outside of the Opportunity Center.

Unfortunately, their prospects look grim: The much-bemoaned Bay Area housing crisis is hitting the poorest residents even harder than those in the economic middle. Local affordable-housing complexes, the next logical step for OC residents, have wait times of five years or more, Reed said.

In part that's because Santa Clara County cities did not meet their state mandated 2007-2014 Regional Housing Needs Allocation targets for building homes for people below 120 percent of the median income. Just one-third of the target number was built, Le said.

At an affordable-housing complex in San Jose run by the John Stewart Company, residents 15 years ago used to move out because they'd bought homes, Reed said. Now, the main reason people move is because they're leaving the Bay Area.

The overall housing climate isn't something that Opportunity Center leaders can change. But given the continued urgency of the homelessness problem, they say they'll keep on doing what they can to prepare people for independence.

"It's been really rewarding how we've been able to change lives," Barton said. "I'm excited that we transformed our organization to be able to continue to do that and do more. And we have to do more."

And as for Davis, who was born at Stanford's original Hoover Pavilion and has lived in the Bay Area his whole life, whenever he finds a landlord to take his Section 8 voucher, he'll be ready to move. Until then, he will continue to stay warm and safe, cook meals with his OC neighbors in their communal kitchen and make the most of his home sweet home.


Making the finances work: Figuring out how to balance the budget of the Opportunity Center for the past 10 years has been as challenging as learning how best to serve chronically homeless clients.

Watch it online: Hear more about trends in affordable housing for the homeless on "Behind the Headlines," the Weekly's webcast. The video will be posted Friday evening on the Weekly's YouTube Channel.

10th Birthday event: A 10th birthday open house will be held on Saturday, April 29, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Opportunity Center. It will include client testimonies, tours, and more about the Community Working Group's plans. RSVPs requested but not required. More information is available here or by contacting dyan@communityworkinggroup.org or 650-299-8700.


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24 people like this
Posted by Grateful
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 28, 2017 at 10:58 am

Thanks and kudos to the visionaries (Don Barr, John Barton, Litsie Indergand, and others) who brought the Opportunity Center into reality. This is a wonderful resource in our community. Congratulations on 10 years!

Like this comment
Posted by Housing First
a resident of University South
on May 29, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Yes, the Opportunity Center has and continues to be a wonderful resource for the community. I congratulate those who have championed the cause of housing for the homeless in Palo Alto. When the adjacent parcel with two retail shops (shoe + audio sales) was being re-developed to be single-, maybe two-story medical offices and a ground level parking lot, I was wondering why this parcel could not have been annexed/purchased by those who could and would build a companion to the existing Opportunity Center. It seems the medical offices could have been integrated into the new higher building with more stories and underground parking. May anyone know how or why this opportunity was missed?

Like this comment
Posted by Robin
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 8, 2017 at 1:18 am

I've been homeless for 10 years. Am on SSI income only. I'm disabled, and would like to find a studio, or apartment as soon as possible. How can I do so on $950/month which is my total SSI income. Any/all help would be very much appreciated!

1 person likes this
Posted by Options
a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2017 at 5:08 pm

@Robin, nice apartments in Des Moines start at the $600 range.
I assume SSI income does not depend on state of residence.

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