Small Nonprofit With Big Impact Warms the Heart of Community


From left to right: Pastor Paul Bains, volunteer Jana Sullivan, board member Robert Sherrard, and community partner Thomas Madson. Madson serves as principal of East Palo Alto Phoenix Acadamy, a charter school that uses the gym for physical education during the day.

EAST PALO ALTO, CA – A small non-profit organization, Project WeHOPE, is warming the heart of this struggling community, both figuratively and literally.

Among its many initiatives, Project WeHOPE (“We Help Other People Excel”) founded East Palo Alto’s only warming shelter for homeless people in 2009. Every night from November to April, 27 people on average come in from the cold for a hot meal, medical attention, and a warm place to sleep. The shelter houses individuals, and increasingly in these economic times, entire families.

The shelter opened after it became apparent through the 2009 San Mateo County homeless census that East Palo Alto has the greatest percentage of homeless in the county.

“Very little was being done…no one was housing the homeless,” said Pastor Paul Bains, President of WeHOPE and co-founder with his wife Cheryl. They did what only made sense to them: opened the shelter in the organization’s gym, located in an industrial park warehouse.

But Bains wasn’t satisfied with just a place to come in from the cold. The shelter had to be, in his words, “not a hand out, but a hand up.” Everyone looking for help was evaluated for their medical and mental needs, and given help with connecting to longer-term transitional housing.

“We’re trying to help the people become members of society,” he said. “We help them to restore their dignity.”

Bains said one woman who had been living in a local field known as the “Field of Dreams” for more than five years is now in transitional housing because of the shelter.

“We initiated the help that got her into stable housing,” he said. “She has income now and when she feels she’s ready, she will get an apartment.”

The program was such a success during the winter of 2009 that Project WeHOPE’s leaders opened the shelter again in November 2010. Bains said the shelter housed on average 15 people per night last year.

“This year we’re relatively full, or close to full, every night,” Bains said.

But Bains said the shelter is $30,000 short of its fundraising goal to remain open through April of this year, when nights get a little warmer. It costs Project WeHOPE $145,000 to keep the shelter open for six months.

Bains said the organization is searching for more donations and grants not only for this season, but for next season, when San Mateo County officials have already told local non-profits they may not be able to fund programs like the Warming Shelter at the same level as in previous years.

The shelter’s meals are provided by community volunteers, but the shelter is mainly staffed with paid employees who are trained in how to evaluate and work with the homeless population. A well-trained paid staff is necessary, Bains said. “You can’t expect people to volunteer overnight seven days a week,” he added.

Ideally Bains would like the shelter to open its doors when the sun goes down around 5:30, instead of 8:00 p.m. But that would take another $13,000.

Other needs on the shelter’s wish list include men’s and women’s showers, which would serve both homeless clients, and people who use the gym when the shelter is not in operation.

In an effort to raise money for all the organizations programs, Project WeHOPE is hosting a fashion show charity banquet called “Enchanted Garden” on Feb. 26, 2011, in Redwood City. Bains said it will feature the designs of European-based designer RoiFord, who originally lived in East Palo Alto.

Besides the Warming Shelter, Project WeHOPE runs the Lord’s Gym Community Center, for East Palo Alto youth, the Chaplaincy Program, which offers support to the local law enforcement officers and crime victims, and the Technology Access Point (TAP) Center, which provides computer access for residents, as well as educational training for children and youth.

Volunteer Michael Holt (right) works with other volunteers inside the gym.

To donate to Project WeHOPE, go to the organization’s website and click on “Donate Now.”


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Volunteers Take Part in Census to Help Government Track Homelessness


SAN MATEO, CA. – In the dark, damp, and cold of the predawn on a recent Thursday, more than 240 volunteers left their own warm beds indoors to fan out throughout San Mateo County searching for those who had spent the entire night outdoors with no beds.

Rodney Roberson (left) and Chris Wahl check out a creek bed looking for homeless encampments.

It was a scenario that has been played out nationwide, as local governments and homeless groups tackle the 2011 national homeless census. The process undertaken once every two years in the last couple of weeks in January and early February helps the entities figure out what services are needed, as well as provide a benchmark for how programs helping the homeless are doing.

At 6 a.m. on Jan. 27 at San Mateo City Hall, one of 12 “deployment centers” that day, volunteers received their final instructions before heading out into the darkness. They were told safety first: don’t attempt to speak to people found out on the streets. Don’t worry about the exact count, there are formulas to figure out the results. And “zero” is a valid report.

Small groups of three and four people headed out in cars to their assigned census tracts. Each group had a “homeless guide”, someone who is currently homeless and staying in a shelter or transitional housing.

The director of San Mateo County’s Center for Homelessness, Wendy Goldberg said that by pairing volunteers with homeless people on the census, it helps put a face on homelessness.

“I think it’s a golden opportunity for people to learn about homelessness in the county,” she said.