Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 30, 2002

Guest Opinion: Stepping outside Palo Alto's beautiful bubble Guest Opinion: Stepping outside Palo Alto's beautiful bubble (January 30, 2002)

by Chris Chambers

I never sign for my volunteer hours when I go to the Drop-in Center for the homeless in Palo Alto.

The four hours I spend once or twice a week standing outside in the 50-degree January mornings are remembered only by those who see me cupping my hands around my coffee.

My first visit to the Drop-in Center -- operated by the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto and located behind the train station, off University Avenue near downtown -- was a year ago. I called during a long winter break, trying to stay busy. It has proven to be one of my most profound learning experiences.

But I don't consider my time there "community service." The main reason I go is not to help or give selflessly to the disadvantaged; it's much more.

Friends in high school referred to Palo Alto as "the bubble." While inside we were sheltered from the harsher realities of the outside world. We lived in surreal space where we witnessed gross displays of money and blissful ignorance to the fact that such lavish wealth was the privilege of a select few. We were bored and lost inside its shimmering walls. This vision of Palo Alto was a beautiful lie.

The Drop-in Center is not in the bubble.

It smells of cigarettes, urine, coffee, despair, sweat and birds. The people are not beautiful as in high school or on TV. Some are missing teeth, some are overweight, some are underweight, some have long hair, beards and long fingernails. Some have dark skin, some light, some are in wheelchairs, some hear voices and some are addicts.

The Drop-in Center provides only the most basic services. It is open from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. Every morning, the first 50 who arrive receive free bus passes for the day, which makes it easier to get to churches, shelters and services. The center serves hot coffee, hot water for instant soups and (donated) pastries. It provides a permanent address and telephone number.

The site distributes donations and arranges paperwork to help people find work or qualify for benefits.

It does not have the facilities necessary to serve hot meals. Few buildings will rent to the Drop-in Center because the clientele devalue the property they use. Thus, it must operate behind the Red Cross out of a utility shed and cramped office.

Despite Palo Alto's liberal reputation, many in the community resent the homeless. We all resent higher taxes. There are rumors that in Palo Alto one can panhandle more money in a day than one can get from an honest job. A few years ago, a vagrancy law was passed that prohibits the homeless from sleeping on the streets of downtown Palo Alto.

As much as we want to distance ourselves from the homeless and condemn them for their lifestyle, I have found it increasingly difficult to separate the "us" from the "them."

One day I struck up a conversation with a woman who was shamelessly shaving her chin in the full glory of the morning sun. When she talked about her son, I realized that he was one of my high school classmates.

Many of the volunteers seem "normal," but they may not reveal that they have family members or friends who are now homeless.

People at the Drop-in Center are often not as they seem. One of my close friends now is a 56-year-old man from Mexico who works there. He lives in shelters when he can and a garage when he cannot. Although he speaks little English, he has taught me a great deal about philosophy and Eastern religions.

He started as a volunteer, and was given a salary when he proved himself a hard and consistent worker. He sends most of his earnings to his family and to a girl he sponsored who lives in Honduras. He chose this job not because it was the only one available but because he loves people. Every person has a story. I am constantly reminded of that when I am at the center. Reticence is common, but sometimes a hint will slip through that shows me people are more complex and amazing than I ever thought possible.

The reason I don't sign in my hours is because I do not feel that I'm doing "community service." But what am I doing? I am learning, though not through the attentive observation of an inquisitive scientist or the enforced attentiveness of most students in a classroom.

I learn through stories; by sitting in the sun, drinking coffee and just listening.

Chris Chambers-Ju was raised in Palo Alto and attended Juana Briones elementary, JLS Middle School and Gunn High School, from which he graduated in 2000. He is in his second year at Amherst College, Mass. He spent last summer in Honduras with the Amigos de las Americas organization, which provides health-related services in Central American countries through youth volunteers, and will be a field supervisor next summer in Nicaragua. He can be e-mailed at


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.