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Op-Ed: A Stanford Student-Run Shelter

I belong to a student group that listens to stories. People ask, “What’s the point?”

Social change begins with your guts. At some gut level, we respond to injustice. I see a fellow community member sleeping on a bench and I know something is wrong with the bigger picture, although I don’t yet know what. We try to resolve our gut repugnance to injustice. We seek out answers by listening to the stories of others. Someday, we build our own answers. The point is emergent.

Consider the story of Kiva. Jessica Jackley met business owners in East Africa, from herders to craftsmen. After getting to know these entrepreneurs, Jackley founded the first microlending website. Since 2005, Kiva’s loans total $100 million.

What’s the point? Jackley says, “While those numbers are really fun to talk about, to me, Kiva’s really about the stories. It’s about retelling the story of the poor, and it’s about giving ourselves an opportunity to engage that validates their dignity.”

The point is that listening is the first step to social change. Effective services use approaches reached in partnership with those served.

Night Outreach builds friendships with unhoused members of our community. We volunteer at the Opportunity Center and go on walks to meet people who live on the streets of Palo Alto. Through our service, we’ve found we’re equally in need — perspectives. In partnership with people we’ve met, we’ve reached new understandings.

There’s nothing healthy about the situation we now meet, not for our society and not for community members experiencing homelessness. Individual causes of homelessness are complex. In Santa Clara County, the top reason cited for unhoused status is loss of job.

Even for people whose personal choices contribute to their unhoused status, no society should inflict the experience of homelessness without adequate options. The health risks should be coercion enough — we need to act. No human being should experience the exposure to weather, circulatory problems, trauma and injury risks of homelessness. Shelter is a human right. Boston Healthcare for the Homeless found the average age of death for a group of chronically unhoused individuals was 51 years. This is our society. And frankly, this is morally abhorrent.

The need for shelter far surpasses services available. There are 178 unhoused individuals in Palo Alto, while the only shelter has 15 beds. What about low-income housing? The national average wait for Section 8 rental subsidies is 35 months. Our local and national communities do not provide adequate shelter options.

As Stanford students, we can offer a community initiative that helps meet the need for shelter in Palo Alto. Since July, I’ve worked with Aparna Ananthasubramaniam, Heidi Chen, Kurt von Laven and Mindy Phung to evaluate the feasibility of a student-run shelter. We’ve interviewed service providers, unhoused individuals and faculty to define ideas. The only student-run shelter, at Harvard, was established in 1983. Our adaptation relies on two principles: (1) Shelter is a human right and (2) Effective service is a partnership.

I invite you to hear logistical ideas for a student-run shelter and help shape this initiative at our roundtable discussion Feb. 5 in Old Union. As an introduction, consider the following advantages of a student-run shelter for all members of our community.

First, student volunteers save time, energy and funding for service providers. Because of students’ different dynamic from professional employees, our shelter also allows focus on guests’ experience. Finally, we as students stand to grow, informed in our future careers by direct experience and a service-learning course related to homelessness. To that end, our shelter is committed to increasing representation of unhoused individuals in shelter decisions and beyond.

Through representation and service-learning, we will listen to the stories entrusted to us. This is where the idea of the student-run shelter comes from. More than anything else, it will be a place for our community to come together and learn from each other.

Marie Baylon ‘12

Email shelter.roundtable.info@gmail.com for an overview of our proposals.

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