Shaw: Sunnyvale shelter donation policy makes no sense
The Sunnyvale homeless shelter is open year-round and serves up to 140 people. File photo.

Pasta. It’s what’s for dinner, and lunch and would be for breakfast, if hot breakfast was ever served at the Sunnyvale shelter.

Eating pasta 45 times within a 30-day period has to eventually cause some negative health effects. It’s cheap, easy to prepare and serves a lot of people. Understood. What I can’t understand, is how HomeFirst has alienated the Sunnyvale community and advocates with a frigid donation policy.

The donation policy, not found on the organization’s website, is that all donations going to the Sunnyvale shelter have to be dropped off at the main office in Milpitas. Then the office determines what the shelter gets. Visitors aren’t allowed at the shelter.

This causes a major inconvenience for supportive community members. If you live five minutes from the shelter, you have to drive 20 minutes to Milpitas to drop off items—then hope the items get to who and where you want them to go.

Client needs in Sunnyvale are now determined by employees in Milpitas, who never come to the shelter or interact with the clients, unless it’s a photo-op. This is how clients become bed occupancy numbers, isolated from the community. The community isn’t allowed to show it cares by coming by and dropping off needed items. The clients aren’t given the opportunity to see and appreciate those in the community that care.

COVID-19 provided an opportunity for management to engage and reach out to the community, or separate the shelter from the community that supported it. The latter happened. Yes, there was the need for safety that kept outside individuals away from the shelter, causing a loss in essentials such as haircuts, group study meetings and especially food serving. Community members understood that, but don’t understand why they cannot donate directly to their local shelter.

Before COVID, Sunnyvale was seen as a model shelter. A renovated facility built on strong donation support and philanthropy of community members and advocate groups. Support was cultivated through years of relationship building and a willingness to make a difference. Most of this didn’t involve the office in Milpitas.

Sunnyvale, being a winter shelter, was more of an afterthought, along with the women’s shelter. Then the Sunnyvale shelter obtained funding to become a year-round shelter, based on the hard work of the advocates and clients. And the main office became a presence, but it wasn’t a presence of inclusion, rather a “we know best” presence. But there are some things I think they didn’t know.

The bathroom improvements were low quality, and there’s still no place for handicapped men to sit down and shower. A lack of team building has caused unnecessary tension between shelter staff and the caseworker team, and the struggles in the caseworker program are completely management’s fault. The shelter continues to bring in individuals with disabilities that can’t be cared for properly. Philanthropy is needed from the Sunnyvale community.

But the contracts keep coming, based on the connections the county and cities have as and with former HomeFirst employees, and the board appointments that “partner” nonprofits share with HomeFirst. Homelessness is big money and recent policy changes have enlarged the pot of funds that nonprofits readily accept. The business of homelessness is now run less like a philanthropic organization and more like a corporation that sees clients merely as beds.

Easter was a perfect illustration of business over philanthropy. Past Easter meals have been prepared or served by the community, and baskets and candy provided to kids and adults.

This year there was none of that, even though the community would have provide these things. The staff did what they could with miniscule support of management. The efforts were appreciated and the kids enjoyed it, but resources were sadly lacking. A hot dog with a small piece of corn isn’t much of an Easter meal. And management not even thinking about providing Easter baskets to the children shows they are missing something.

I still donate things directly to clients instead of the shelter. Things such as toys and children’s books. There are a lot of children currently at the shelter, but management seems to forget they are here, until it’s time for a feel good news story.

Numerous times, powdered milk has been mixed for breakfast because fresh milk isn’t allowed to be donated directly to the shelter, even by its neighbors. The cupboards have literally been bare many times, and I had the opportunity to obtain food such as bread, fruit and veggies and drinks such as milk, tea, soda and juice from Lighthouse Ministries in San Jose. For about a month, I would pick up hot food, salads—we never have salad at the shelter anymore—and cases of drinks to bring back to the shelter, until workers were yelled at for allowing me to bring things in. There’s still often nothing to drink at the shelter.

I want to encourage the Sunnyvale community to continue supporting the shelter, despite brash treatment from the main office. If an industrial kitchen is needed to provide home cooked meals to the shelter, then help the community secure a common space. Better yet, build a kitchen here. Needing people “approved” before they drop off burgers or detergent or milk is heavy handed and untrusting. Vaccinations and COVID safety are things any caring person donating is aware of.

The success of the shelter is dependent on the direct involvement of the community and advocates. Many community groups have no interest in working with HomeFirst anymore, nor should they. But HomeFirst is not the Sunnyvale shelter. The Sunnyvale shelter is its community.

All the hot meals, food items, snacks, holiday gifts, clothing, shoes, toiletries, bedding, towels, detergents, water, milk, juice and so many other things contributed by the community shows commitment to the shelter. Especially the commitment of time. The community’s time is why this was a model shelter, and with the support of the community, it will become a model shelter again.

Jerome Shaw is homeless and living at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s a leader in the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative—a union of homeless shelter residents in the region—and is part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

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