Community Rallies Together to Bring Hope to the Homeless

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BY PAM MARINO

ORIGINAL FILE DATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2010

EAST PALO ALTO, CA. – Hope for the homeless has a home in this San Francisco Bay Area city.

Last Thursday, Nov. 18, in a grassroots joint effort of non-profit, faith-based, and governmental agencies, more than 100 homeless men, women, and children found hope in the warehouse of an industrial park. A small army of volunteers was on hand to connect people to services, as well as provide free haircuts, resume help, bicycle repair, showers, flu shots and a hot meal.

The second annual event, called East Palo Alto (EPA) Connect, was born last year after a 2009 homeless census found that this San Mateo County city had a high percentage of homeless people. The survey also found that most were not aware of aid and benefits available to them. Instead of giving up or looking the other way, community leaders sought solutions.

One solution was the EPA Connect event, which organizers hoped would immediately connect homeless men, women and children directly with services to help them transition back to having a roof over their heads.

“The county came and asked us to do this a year ago, and we asked, ‘is that a trick question? Of course we do,’” said Pastor Paul Bains, president of Project WeHOPE, a non-profit that helps the community through various programs.

The event was so successful it was repeated again last Thursday, at Project WeHOPE’s headquarters, which also serves as a warming shelter when the weather turns cold. The warehouse space, which also acts as a gym for East Palo Alto youth, was lined with tables for a myriad of agencies.

“The community of East Palo Alto has really rallied around the issue of homelessness,” said Amanda Kim, a public information officer for the County of San Mateo Human Services Agency. “There’s a strong community will to address (the problem).”

One corner of the warehouse became the temporary location for The Beauty Wheel, a Redwood City salon. At the behest of Bonnie Miller of the Salvation Army, stylists Paige Register, Carmen Ayon and Janet Bordens closed the shop to offer their services in East Palo Alto. They busily cut hair, trimmed beards and mustaches, while chatting up their “customers”.

“It puts a smile on their face,” said Ayon. “You can always lift somebody up when they look good.”

The women participated in last year’s event, and enjoyed it so much they came back. The same went for Mark Korwald, a volunteer with Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, one of the agencies at the event. Mark donated his skills to repair bicycles in the parking lot outside the warehouse.

“I did this once before and it was one of the best days I ever had,” he said.

Assisting Korwald last week was his friend Kent Silverthorne, who spent 25 years on the streets of San Mateo County until finally being helped into transitional housing.

“I was homeless, and now that I have a place to stay I wanted to pay back the people who helped me,” Silverthorne said, explaining why he came out to help at the EPA Connect event.

Silverthorne grew up in a comfortable Peninsula middle class home with a stockbroker father and a mother who worked for a radio station. Tragically, both parents died before he was 18, which in part led to his homelessness.

Just a few feet away from the bike repair station was physicians’ assistant Margaret Allen, from the Ravenswood Family Health Center, who was gently washing feet and trimming toenails of some very grateful people. Speaking fluent Spanish with her British accent, Allen smiled and laughed with participants, all while massaging foot cream onto weary feet, or taking care of haggard nails.

Kim said that offering services like bike repair, haircuts and even foot care, often makes a significant difference for a homeless person trying to find, or even keep, a job. The EPA Connect event is a way to help stabilize people, and hopefully help them toward permanent solutions.

Inside the warehouse more than 15 organizations and governmental agencies had staff and volunteers eager to share information. It was one-stop shopping for anyone looking for help with finding shelter, transitional housing, or long-term housing. There was also help with finding agencies to secure food, mental health services, and legal aid. And because organizers said they have run into a number of homeless veterans, Veterans Administration officials were on hand, as well.

Bains said Project WeHOPE leaders were committed to hosting the event this year, even though this has been a difficult year for the non-profit, which is short $30,000 specifically for keeping the warming shelter open every night during the winter.

“A homeless person can’t tell the difference between 42 degrees and 38 degrees,” he said. Cold is cold, after all, said Bains.

Despite the challenges, Bains said he intends to help the EPA Connect event happen every year, as long as it’s needed.

“Homelessness is not going to be resolved by one entity, it’s going to take many people,” he said.

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