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'Opportunity Center,' being built near campus to stop the spiral of homelessness


"Mark your calendars: 18 months from today, be back here for the grand opening of the Opportunity Center," LaDoris Cordell announced May 5 as local officials and activists celebrated the groundbreaking for a Palo Alto facility that will serve the homeless.

Cordell, vice provost for campus relations and a Palo Alto council member, is a board member of the Community Working Group (CWG), the nonprofit developer of the Opportunity Center that will be located off El Camino Real across from campus. More than 200 people gathered at the empty dirt lot sandwiched between the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Town & Country Village shopping center to learn about the project's history and future plans.

Construction of the $23.8 million center is slated to begin next month. The five-story building, which features two levels of underground parking, will comprise 89 units of permanent and transitional housing for homeless people and families. A drop-in center on the ground floor will offer showers, laundry facilities, lockers, a clothes closet and services such as computer instruction. A second center with a separate entrance will provide services for women and children, such as health care and assistance in finding child care and housing. According to figures provided by CWG, about 600 people, including 150 children, are chronically homeless on any day in the mid-Peninsula region. Thousands more require support services.

"Homelessness is not a cycle, it's a spiral," said Norman Carroll, a representative of the homeless community who worked on the project. "The longer you're sliding down, the harder it is to climb out." Carroll said the center will give at-risk people a safety net so that fewer people will end up like him. "I don't need extra people on the street," he said.

Almost 60 percent of the cost for the center will be covered by a combination of government grants, loans and tax credits, with the balance paid by private donations from private citizens and foundations. Some of the social services currently provided by the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto and InnVision, two nonprofits, will move to the center. Services for women and children will be coordinated by Clara Mateo Alliance, a nonprofit that runs the Elsa Segovia Center in Menlo Park.

During the ceremony, Cordell reported that an $8 million capital campaign goal had been met, and announced the establishment of a new $1 million Opportunity Fund that will provide rent subsidies for the center's poorest residents and help buy furniture, computers and telephones. Joy Wagner, the center's associate campaign director and a university employee, said she had just been given $2,000 for the fund raised by residents of Lantana, the community service dorm on the Stanford campus.

Cordell also recognized the efforts Don Barr, associate professor of sociology, whom she described as a "social engineer" and "the brains behind the project."

Barr, board president of CWG, told Stanford Report that the group's first meeting took place in Building 1 on campus just after the El Niño floods of February 1998. Heavy rains had damaged many university buildings and temporarily flooded the existing Palo Alto Drop-In Center, a small outdoor facility nearby. At that point, Barr said, university and public officials realized that a permanent center to aid the area's poorest residents was needed.

As a result, representatives from Stanford, including linguistics Professor Tom Wasow and Jim Burklo, then a campus minister, as well as the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, Urban Ministry, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and Peninsula Interfaith Action began work on the project.

"Stanford and the Haas Center [for Public Service] have been integral parts of this effort," Barr said. According to history Professor Al Camarillo, students taking his course Poverty and Homelessness in America will intern at the center. Plans to include student volunteers from the School of Medicine and the Department of Athletics are also being discussed.

Influences shaping the design of the Opportunity Center can be traced back to an Urban Studies class taught in Winter Quarter 2000. Architecture and Community Service: Design Studio required students to dream up plans for a drop-in center for the homeless. The Opportunity Center's architect, Robert Quigley, attended the students' final presentations. "The students, through their own research, discovered something that none of us understood," he said. "A lot of people on the streets are more comfortable in an outdoor, but protected, environment." As a result, Quigley said, the center will include a protected courtyard.