On a rainy winter night, I dragged myself out of my comfortably heated dorm and headed on an unfamiliar route leading off campus. As my tweed coat dampened in the drizzle, I secretly reproached myself for not having foreseen this unpleasant journey when I signed up for a volunteering slot at the homeless women’s shelter two weeks earlier.
As an international student from China who knew little of the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area prior to arriving at Stanford, I joined the student team that supports Heart and Home Collaborative (H&H), a local women’s shelter founded by Stanford graduate Aparna Ananthasubramaniam ’13 M.S. ’19, which serves the greater Palo Alto community. Throughout the shelter’s annual operation from December to April, the student team helps coordinate volunteer sign-ups, organize logistics and connect Stanford resources to the shelter.
My involvement with H&H allowed me to get beyond the on-campus bubble and interact with non-Stanford people living in the area. After spending the first evening shift slicing squash, chopping thyme and sharing dinner conversations with the women, I felt energized as I got to know people who differ from me so much in age, culture and life experiences. Not only did I write off the bike ride transit, but I was genuinely uplifted by the fact that the shelter provided the women safety and warmth during the chilly December nights.
Volunteering at the women’s shelter threw light on how disparate living in the Bay Area can be; this inequality is especially accentuated during the unpredictable time of the COVID-19 epidemic. When the shelter-in-place order took effect on March 17 across the Bay Area, H&H was presented with a number of challenges to keep its clients safe in the public health crisis. Currently based in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, the shelter has expanded its hours from the regular 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. to all-day, while the number of staff physically present at the shelter has shrunk to four.
“The majority of our residents are above 50 and a lot of them are above 65, so they are super vulnerable,” said Medina Husakovic, the current H&H Stanford core team leader. “Being unhoused is just incompatible with health. Even when you’re in a shelter like ours, it is still hard to stay healthy.”
As a board member of the nonprofit, Husakovic works to coordinate Stanford student volunteering and to connect on-campus resources to the shelter’s needs. After Stanford students stopped in-person volunteering in accordance with the Haas Center’s guidance issued on March 6, Husakovic and her team have been remotely supporting the staff still working at the shelter location, including calling for food and supplying donations from the Stanford community via email.
To protect the clients from COVID-19 infection, Mary Wisnewski, president of H&H, told me the shelter has set up protocols in accordance with county guidelines. Staff and residents alike are asked screening questions and have temperatures taken every day.
“If someone has symptoms, immediately we will isolate them within the campus until we get in touch with the county’s mobile team,” Wisnewski said. The residents’ sleeping mattresses have been more sparsely spread out. Hand sanitizers and wipes are also provided in the kitchen area.
Although the residents leave the shelter to get food and do laundry, Wisnewski told me that many of them have been feeling “really stuck indoors” and are experiencing “increased stress and tension.” As I told her I am still remaining in my dorm on campus, she said I could probably relate to what it means to “be tossed into a living situation with 13 people you don’t really know that well.” While my friends and I complain about the compounding stress of having to remain indoors nearly 24/7, until my conversation with Wisnewski, I had forgotten that many people have to deal with the additional challenges of living with hardly having any privacy, shelter or safety during the lockdown.
Despite these adversities, the women have been using the time indoors to think more creatively about how to support one another. Some of them have been sewing masks, while others are looking into weeding the garden of the church in lieu of the absent gardening workers. I was especially heartened to learn about a guest’s quest into the bureaucratic conundrums of the Internal Revenue Service.
“One woman really did a lot of research into how [residents can] report to the government [for a stimulus check] even if they haven’t filed taxes because they don’t have income,” Wisnewski said. “She wrote it all up in a thousand texts to me, and I turned it into an email [and later on] sent it out to a couple of other agencies.”
Looking at the bigger picture in the Bay Area, the government’s move to procure hotel rooms and open up emergency shelters promise attention to vulnerable populations. Despite the heightened efforts, Husakovic told me they are far from adequate.
“The shelters in San Francisco are chronically overfilled, and there is one shelter that has 70 confirmed cases,” Husakovic said.
Wisnewski said the absence of such help prior to the outbreak makes her question our priorities in non-emergency times.
“The city of Palo Alto has set up six hand-washing stations where people who are experiencing homelessness might be, and the downtown streets team representative Alexas [suggested] putting out charging stations because people who can no longer go to the libraries and Peet’s are having a real hard time keeping their phone charged,” Wisnewski said. “Why is it only now possible because of the virus, when people needed it two months ago?”
Two months, two years, two decades. How easy it is for a society to slide over chronic pains and brush them by as housewives do a fly. How habituated it is for me too, I thought, to forget these women underneath my thoughts on my next paper and next packed meal. Even though I have heard Maria talk about her career in social work and shared the fun of my dorm’s ski trip with Alia, I don’t live in a shelter; the urgency of securing homes for those without one or demanding help from those with the capacity to do so, escapes my mind too easily.
Due to the need to keep the shelter going into May, the extended operation timeline increased H&H’s budget by about one-third. They have applied for emergency funding from the city of Palo Alto and await a response. Wisnewski explained that with their current individual-donor-based funding mode, “it is an incredible ratio and it is very challenging to come up with this money.”
“We are still looking for dinner donations,” Husakovic said. “I have already published through Stanford once, and if there are students who have access to food and can cook it and bring it to the shelter, it would be amazing. That would be a way that Stanford students can help.”
Being stuck at home can suck, when you have one. As my friends and I rub our eyes in front of our illuminated portable pads during a zoom lecture, not having a roof above our head is beyond what most of us can imagine. Not to downplay how challenging this is and will be for a lot of us, but while we browse through articles like “This is how I learned to deal with boredom during quarantine” on our feed, it may be worth taking a moment to think of those who don’t have our taken-for-granted luxury.
(Donations to H&H can be made through https://www.hhcollab.org/donate/ or venmo @hhcollab. The shelter guests have been anonymized to protect their privacy.)
Contact Dongming Zhang at dongming ‘at’ stanford.edu.