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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 08, 2002

A safe place A safe place (May 08, 2002)

New homeless shelter for women and families opens in Menlo Park

by Lulu Wijaya

Kathy Espinoza-Howard, director of human services for the city of Palo Alto, was surprised to find no women and children being served at a homeless drop-in center she visited. Then she discovered that women and children often do not feel comfortable enough to seek support from places dominated by men, who make up the majority of the homeless population.

"It's not an inviting, warm place to be, not a place you'd want to bring a child to," she said. She called together a group of 46 community service agencies and they finally conceived the idea of a women's day center in November 1999. And they made sure the place would be attractive, with "warm and welcoming colors."

The Elsa Segovia Center Serving Women, Children and Families on the Midpeninsula will have its grand opening May 10 at the Veterans Administration Hospital grounds in Menlo Park. The program is sponsored by the Clara-Mateo Alliance, serving the homeless in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The Segovia Center is named after a homeless woman who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Menlo Park in January 2000. The center expects to serve 500 people a year, according to Angel Batt, the executive director of the Clara-Mateo Alliance.

The Segovia Center hopes to serve the unique needs of homeless women, many of whom have children. It is hard enough being homeless, let alone being homeless and having to raise children on the streets, said Judy Kramer, one of the opening event's organizers.

If homeless men are more commonly seen than women and children, that is because these women are "so careful, so desperate to keep their families together," said Espinoza-Howard, noting that domestic violence and divorce are often additional burdens they have to deal with. Consequently, their homelessness becomes "hidden: They prefer not to go to established shelters but may try to put up at their friends' place, for example."

To fully address these needs, the center goes one step further than most shelters that expect people to be out during the day. It is a comprehensive, multi-service, "one-stop shop" so people no longer have to "go from place to place to place, unable to just sit down, have a hot cup of coffee, take a shower." It is what Kramer hopes will be "a better way to serve women and families."

The center will provide basics such as job-placement service, meals, showers and laundry facilities. In addition, it offers computer, ESL, yoga and nutrition classes. A computer room with 10 PCs equipped with high-speed Internet access will help clients looking for employment.

The center also has a clothes closet with outfits suitable for job interviews as well as seasonal clothing, and an Image Center, where clients can get manicures, pedicures and haircuts. Cosmetology students from the College of San Mateo will volunteer to run the Image Center.

"You guys might think it's frivolous," Batt remembers telling male colleagues who "rolled their eyes" upon hearing of the Image Center. She convinced them that such services help boost women's self-esteem and "un-stigmatize the homeless population."

Nonprofit agencies such as Mayview Health Clinic and El Centro de Libertad will have their own offices in the health-care department, offering mental-health counseling, family therapy, alcohol and drug counseling, and domestic violence classes. The Junior League has donated outfits and done landscaping for the center's back yard.

The Family Room resembles a spacious nursery school with a play area, a reading corner, and tables for children to do artwork or have a snack. A playground is located right outside.

Perhaps the center's most unique facility is the Serenity Room. There are six easy chairs, and a little stone fountain on a table in the corner makes a soothing, trickling sound. There should be "no working, no brochures, no children, no nothing (because) this is a place for people to relax," Batt said.

She envisions the room to be a place where people can get away and hopefully through the calming experience they will be able to "figure things out."

"Now and again people tell me what to do but I don't listen. ... Sometimes you just have to figure things out on your own," she said.

Raymona Erazo, a former Clara-Mateo client, said about the opening of the new facility: "Now my husband can get his GED through the classes offered, and my kids are really excited about the computer room." She herself is looking forward to making use of the Image Center. Erazo's family could no longer afford to pay rent when her husband, a construction worker, was laid off and she had to go on maternity leave. Erazo met Batt while working at Starbucks. Her husband now works at Stanford University and the family recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Redwood City and has applied for home ownership with Habitat for Humanity.

"If we hadn't found Clara-Mateo, we probably would've been in our car until we can save enough money," Erazo said. "They really care about people there, and they don't look down on you." Josephine Minola, the Segovia Center's PR consultant, is similarly enthusiastic: "They've done a remarkable job. You can go there and feel like a human being, and the place helps to inspire you and motivate you to move on."

E-mail Lulu Wijaya at


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