Guest Opinion: A child shall lead the way -- with a good deal of help | September 13, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 13, 2006

Guest Opinion: A child shall lead the way -- with a good deal of help

by Don Barr

When the Opportunity Center officially opens on Sunday, the ribbon-cutter will be my 7-year-old son, Isaac. He's been waiting for this day most of his life, having been designated for this duty by the board of the Community Working Group when he was all of 4 months old.

When I watch Isaac apply scissors to the ribbon, I will feel as though I have fulfilled a commitment my wife, Debra Satz, and I made to our community more than seven years ago.

Isaac was born a bit early -- 3 months, to be exact -- weighing a little over 2 pounds. After three months in the intensive care unit at Stanford, and having grown to a strapping 5 pounds, we were able to bring him home. We felt that we had been given a great gift, for Isaac showed no signs of any adverse outcomes as a consequence of his premature arrival.

When Isaac was born, I had been volunteering for about a year as a member of an ad hoc group of local residents intent on helping to find a solution to the then-perennial problem of providing basic services to the homeless.

The Urban Ministry had struggled for years to do this, but lacked a permanent facility and adequate financial resources. They turned to us for help. It was Isaac's birth that clarified for me what help I could best offer.

A short while after Isaac came home, Debra and I joined other families with new babies, to share and compare our experiences as new parents. As I was chatting to a neighbor about feeding schedules and other such matters, I heard a snippet of a conversation across the room. Another new parent was describing her response when she had learned that her nanny, while walking the baby, had stopped on the street to talk with a homeless person.

"I told her I didn't ever want my baby to interact with a homeless person."

I glanced at Debra -- her eyes told me that she had heard it, too. We said nothing more until we were back home. What kind of community did we want Isaac to grow up in -- a community in which the homeless are shunned? Will growing up in Palo Alto teach Isaac that a homeless person is to be avoided -- not "one of us"? That was not the community we wanted to be part of.

If we wanted Isaac to grow up to see homelessness as an issue to be confronted with compassion and political imagination rather than with avoidance, then something needed to change.

We agreed: If not now, when? If not us, who?

We knew how great a gift we had been given, having healthy 5-pound Isaac home with us. We knew also that gifts can carry with them reciprocal obligations. On that day we made a commitment to ourselves and to our community that we would give back, and would work to include the homeless as full members of our community, with equal dignity and worthy of equal respect.

I shared this story at a meeting of our working group on homeless services a week or so later. Larry Duncan, a longtime advocate for better services to those who are unhoused -- and one who has experienced first-hand the stigma of lacking housing -- was the first to respond: "I move that Isaac be designated as official ribbon cutter for the opening of Opportunity Center."

His motion was seconded and passed unanimously. Four-month-old Isaac had a job to do. So did Debra and I.

There is a Buddhist grace offered before meals that states simply, "Many hands labored to bring us this food. Let us give thanks."

That simple blessing says everything about the many, many people who have labored with passion and with commitment for more than seven years to make the Opportunity Center a reality, as well as so many others who earlier worked to help us better serve and respect the disadvantaged, the elderly, the homeless persons who all are part of our community. Those who have labored are from the civic community, the faith community, the academic community; they are in government and out; they are housed and unhoused.

They are all part of the community we have strived to create. It is all of them -- all of us -- that we will celebrate when Isaac cuts the ribbon.

Donald A. Barr, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Stanford University, has worked as an urgent-care physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and is a Palo Alto resident. He can be e-mailed at


Posted by Chuck Jagoda, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 5, 2013 at 10:59 pm

This article by Don Barr doesn't include some important background.

Some day when the history of fighting for the poor in Palo Alto is written, Don Barr and others will have their names writ large. As his article makes clear, he and many others worked, waited, contributed, prayed, urged, and slowly built the Opportunity Center.

They were then and are now the moral conscience of Palo Alto, a community with a long history of moral leadership. Joan Baez has been a local moral beacon for over 50 years—in the Civil Rights Movement and ever since.

Don Barr and his fellow activisits live the dictum in Matthew 25, where Jesus Christ says that neglect of the least of one's brethren is neglect of Him. It's also walking the talk of “love thy brother as thyself.”

Some of us recently formed the Community Cooperation Team to oppose a proposed City ordinance against living in a vehicle. Many homeowners supported us. Some of the people on the committee were unhoused, others were homeowners, others were renters, and some were Stanford students. One day one of us unhoused members was unhappy about finding that the doctor at the Opportunity Center wasn't there when he came in. He thought there should be a doctor there every day during regular business hours.

Another member of our committee and long time colleague of Don Barr--Norma Grench--said that she could remember when there was no doctor there at all. In fact, she remembered when there was no Oppportunity Center at all. Indeed, Norma is another of those, like Don, who worked and waited and gave so that there could be an Opportunity Center.

Palo Alto has a strong moral tradition that has led the rest of the community and even been a beacon for other communities. But there are also less-than-generous attitudes in Palo Alto. When the matter of whether and where to have an Opportunity Center was being discussed, people said, “This will attract homeless people from all over the Peninsula.”

That was a decade ago. The same voices said the same thing during the recent debate over the ordinance against vehicular habitation (VHO). It's still not true. Unsheltered people didn't rush to Palo Alto at the opening of the Opportunity Center nor with the postponement of VHO.

Like in every other place and in every other person there are good angels and bad angels vying for attention. We always have the choice to listen to whomever we want to be the most like. Sometimes people listen to their fears. Other times we listen to our hearts.

There have been a number of measures taken by the City of Palo Alto that could be described as efforts to exclude, discourage, and segregate those without fixed homes: the parkification of San Fransciquito Creek, University Avenue sit/lie ordinance, limiting restrooms in parks, closing parks at night, etc.

But there have also been successful efforts to engage and provide for the needs of those without fixed shelter—the Opportunity Center being the most noticeable. But there are also free meals every night of the week at various local churches. Many people, institutions, and faith communities are generous in donating time, money, clothes, space, and love. The Hotel de Zink shelters a dozen or so people at a different church every month.

There are parents who, like the parent in Don Barr's story, shudder at the idea of their child having anything to do with an unhoused person. And there are parents who sign up months in advance so they and their children can hang out with unsheltered people being housed at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. They don't want their children growing up in fear. They want them to meet and encounter those less fortunate. The best school districts require their high school graduates to put in six or more hours volunteering in some charitable organization. They think it's good for kids to learn to give back.

Parents being fearful for their children is not unusual. People who will courageously listen to their better angels for no personal profit or material gain—they are a rare and very valuable blessing to this and any community.

Besides the many years of service and support that Don Barr has contributed to the causes of anti-poverty and the unhoused, he is currently the mentor and resource for Stanford students who are incorporating a permanent women's shelter like the Hotel de Zink. They, like Dr. Barr, work hard in the cause of helping others for no material or personal gain.

For information about contributing to the Hearts to Home women's shelter, please email

Posted by Kevin, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2013 at 11:55 am

> When the matter of whether and where to have an Opportunity Center was being discussed, people said, “This will attract homeless people from all over the Peninsula.”

>Unsheltered people didn't rush to Palo Alto at the opening of the Opportunity Center nor with the postponement of VHO.

This is rubbish! When the argument in favor of the Opportunity Center was being pushed on Palo Alto, it was argued that street bums would be cleaned up, because the cops would have a place to send them. It did NOT happen...there are even more bums now, than back then. More car campers, too. Does the OC keep records showing where their inhabitants graduated from high school? If so, how many of them graduated from Palo Alto high schools? Even Victor Frost predicted that the OC would be a magnet, and he was right!

If Palo Alto bleeding hearts want to show their true measure, they will invite the homeless into their own homes or church parking lots. Hasn't happened yet.

I suggest you save your crocodile tears for those who are susceptible to them. Not too many in Palo Alto.