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March 1, 2011

Stanford students organize to help shelter the homeless

The six students have talked to homeless people about their needs, have met with local social workers to get ideas on how their shelter could add to existing services and are meeting with Stanford faculty and staff for help, advice and support.

By Adam Gorlick

It's another Thursday evening in downtown Palo Alto, and people are darting in and out of University Avenue's bustling restaurants, shops and bars. Friends stop each other to chat, make plans for the night and then part ways.

Just about everyone passes Roger without a word. He says he can't talk, anyway – he's too busy moving garbage bags filled with his secrets and treasures from a sidewalk bench to an abandoned storefront a few feet away. And few eyes rest on Jessie, hunched over his cane and holding a sign saying he's sick with cancer. Then there's Steven, sitting a few blocks away outside a bookstore, tugging on his long, dirty gray beard and talking to himself. Bunny joins him soon enough, but not before she digs through a trashcan and fishes out a half-drunk bottle of soda.

These are just a few of Palo Alto's homeless – a sliver of the often ignored and sometimes pitied 180 or so men and women who usually sleep on the streets or somewhere along the nearby train tracks when the city's 15-bed shelter is full.

To Stanford undergraduates Marie Baylon and Mindy Phung, they're also friends in need of help. With four other students, the juniors are trying to organize a shelter that offers an alternative for those who – because of bad luck, bad decisions or a combination of the two – have no home of their own.

'We wanted to do more'

For the past three years, Baylon and Phung have volunteered in the Night Outreach student group, spending one night a week walking through downtown and giving the homeless pieces of fruit, asking if they need anything and offering an ear. On this night, they'll spend just over an hour listening to Steven talk about his discharge from the Navy, the time he was beaten with his flute, his love of horses and 3-D movies, and his dream of lying in the tall grass near the ocean at Point Reyes.

"We've gotten close to a lot of people living on streets through Night Outreach, and it made us question ourselves and what we were doing," said Baylon, a philosophy major. "Giving them conversation and company didn't seem like enough. We wanted to do more."

So the friends brainstormed this past summer until they came up with the idea of starting a shelter: an ambitious idea, but one that has been realized elsewhere. Baylon and Phung are drawing on lessons from the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run facility with 24 beds that has operated every winter since 1983.

"It's encouraging to see that other students have done this," said Phung, who is majoring in product design. "Knowing it's possible is really inspiring."

Involving the community 

Their vision is still developing, but so far they've done a tremendous amount of research. They've talked to the homeless about their needs. They've met with local social workers to get ideas on how their shelter could add to existing services and connect the homeless with health care, job training and permanent housing. They've spoken with Stanford faculty and are meeting with administrators to get the university's support for their project.

"They’ve absolutely done their due diligence," said David Grusky, a sociology professor and director of Stanford's Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. "They've worked as hard as they can and talked to everyone who could possibly be involved in a student-run shelter. They appreciate they're taking on something huge, and they're going into it very well-prepared."

Along with Grusky, the students have sought help and advice from Donald Barr, an associate professor of sociology and human biology who helped establish the Community Working Group, an organization addressing homelessness in and around Palo Alto; and Rob Reich, an associate professor of political science and co-director of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. They've also worked closely with Kristen Azevedo, an assistant director at the Haas Center for Public Service.

From research to action plan

Their ideas now stretch over an 11-page "research summary" that draws on studies, reports and interviews they've conducted.

The plan boils down to this: Find a facility either on or off campus that will provide 15 beds, showers, storage and a kitchen where people can prepare simple meals. Student volunteers and administrators will run the daily operations of the shelter. They'll keep the books, control inventory and be responsible for managing the facility. And they'll partner with local government and nonprofit agencies to connect people with counselors who can address the causes of their homelessness.

"We want to offer a complementary, not a competing, service," Baylon said. "We don't want to detract from other services that are being offered. "

Ideally, Baylon and Phung want the shelter to be incorporated with a service-learning course at Stanford, where student volunteers would meet with a mentor – either a faculty member or a community activist – and have someone to guide them through the bureaucracies and emotions of working with a vulnerable and transient population.

Equal voices

Perhaps most importantly, everyone will have a say in how the shelter is run. The people working there and the people staying there should have equal voices, the students say.

"We want the unhoused members of the community to have a role and responsibilities," Phung said. "They should be able to evaluate things and tell us how effective the facility is. It isn't right to just set something up and expect them to adhere to it without any input."

Baylon and Phung are now joined by sophomores Aparna Ananthasubramaniam and Heidi Chen, junior Kurt von Laven and senior Peter Pham. But they hope their plans for a shelter will attract more students and create a lasting program that will continue to meet the needs of an underserved community.

"It's pretty easy to get caught up in your life and forget there's an entire group of people that need help," Baylon said. "But everyone should care and at least think about the issues others are dealing with. When it becomes OK to ignore a huge group of people, that's destructive. Our entire society loses out." 



Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Marie Baylon:

Mindy Phung: (832) 387-7327,

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