When a sidewalk’s a home

April 19, 2010, 12:53 a.m.
When a sidewalk's a home
According to the 2009 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, 178 homeless individuals live on the streets of Palo Alto. Many of the homeless set up shop along University Avenue. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

“Homeless and hungry, please spare change. Every little bit helps,” reads one woman’s sign. A blue-eyed, 20-something brunette sits quietly outside of Starbucks in downtown Palo Alto, watching as countless people mill by without so much as a downward glance.

The woman’s name is Tanisha Roberts, and she has been homeless and begging for money for the past five years.

Roberts is just one of many of Palo Alto’s homeless population who stake out a spot on University Ave. to ask passersby for donations. According to the 2009 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, 178 homeless individuals live on the streets of Palo Alto.

An almost-high school graduate, Roberts dropped out of Gunn High School in 2004 when she became pregnant. Then, a disagreement with her mother landed Roberts and her fiancé on the streets. Since then, Roberts has tried to work retail jobs in various places but nothing has stuck.

“I have a hard time learning, and most of my family isn’t doing well either,” she said. Roberts added that she had ADD, and was in special education for most of her life.

Now on the streets, she said that she and her fiancé seek shelter at hotels on “good days,” when they manage to scrounge up enough money.

“But most days, it’s just really slow,” Roberts said. “There aren’t that many people, and usually, they just pass by.”

Roberts stops talking and makes eye contact and smiles at about 15 people in a 30-minute period, but only one decides to drop a dollar bill in her metal jar. The other 14 scurry past, pretending not to see her.

According to Roberts, services were provided to her, but they weren’t enough to support her fiancé and two children, who are both now in foster homes.

“People sometimes come and give me food and talk to me, but it’s not enough for me to provide for my babies,” she said.

Only a block down from Roberts, another homeless person has set up shop. A 50-something man with long white facial hair and shoes that are rubber-banded together, he shows signs of mental illness. Refusing to reveal his last name, the man said that his name was “Tom,” and he was from Denver.

Tom gathered more attention from the public than Roberts as he yelled, “Extra change?” Even without a physical sign, more people turned around and took notice of the man, though only two people handed him change.

“I sleep in a hot dog blanket in a house on that street,” he said, motioning towards the direction of the Opportunity House. “They give me pants.”

According to Tom, he received 15 dollars that day.

“It’s pretty hard for me to do what I have to do,” he said. “People give me money, but that’s because I gave them money before, but so I tell them I want extra change, and I ask 20 times a day, and they’re really nice people.”

Don Barr, associate professor of pediatrics, is one of the co-founders of Opportunity Center, a house that provides social services, health care and basic food, clothing and shelter needs to homeless people. The Center aims to aid the homeless by providing job-training programs. If the person is diagnosed with a mental illness, they are provided with Section 8 vouchers for rental assistance.

The city of Palo Alto does not discourage panhandling directly, according to Barr. However, there is a “Sit-Lie Ordinance” in place, prohibiting people from sitting or lying on the sidewalks.

Roberts said that she sat down on the sidewalks when she could, claiming that she hasn’t been prosecuted yet. She explained that no one has used brute force against her; most people usually just ignore her.

“It’s tiring having to be out here all day,” she said. “But I need to do this.”

Marie Baylon ‘12, co-president of the Stanford Night Outreach to the Homeless, is working to listen to the stories of people like Roberts. Her group often does “night walks” to hand out first-aid kits, food and clothes. Night Outreach’s main focus, Baylon says, is to provide attention to the homeless population, who are most often overlooked.

In groups of less than five people, about 30 Stanford students hit the streets on Friday nights to make the people “feel a part of the community,” according to Baylon.

“It’s important to establish some social connection,” Baylon said.

She explained that she was diagnosed with a mental illness in previous years, and what motivated her to remain in school was her support network.

“Just that people would talk to me, and just making me feel like a part of the community still was really powerful for me,” she said. “It really motivated me to go to school again.”

“One of the most powerful things you can do to someone is listen to their story and respect it,” she added.

Login or create an account