M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Cleaning up lives 
South Bay's Downtown Streets Team helps struggling people get their lives in order and find employment through volunteer work.

Shannon Giovacchini becomes emotional when visiting her old room (where someone else is living now) in a shelter in downtown San Jose.

Giovacchini looks like any other young grandmother. You would never know that just two short years ago she was ready to jump in front of a train. Illness ravaged her family, and Giovacchini, emotionally overwrought, walked away from her life.

With no place to sleep, she ended up at a local cold-weather shelter. She saw the Downtown Streets Team members cleaning the shelter the next morning and volunteered to help.

She became more involved with the group and eventually a permanent team member. Through DST, Shannon was able to secure housing and work.

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(Patrick Tehan / Mercury News)

By Michele Chandler / For the Mercury News

Shannon Giovacchini admits that in the not-so-distant past, she barely noticed homeless people she passed on the street. But her life changed two years ago, when the energetic grandmother ended up on the street herself.

Devastated from the back-to-back deaths of her mother and grandmother, she was caring for her elderly father when she went into an emotional tailspin. Just before Christmas in 2010, with only 7 cents in her jacket pocket and slipper boots on her feet, she left the house, telling no one.

For more than a week, she walked miles during the day and at night slept outside, in a hospital emergency room lobby or on a friend's couch before ending up at the Sunnyvale Armory, which acts as an overnight homeless shelter during winter months.

One day, she headed from the Armory to the Palo Alto Station, intending to commit suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming train. "I was broken. I just didn't want to go on. I was ready to end it then," Giovacchini said.

But she changed her mind that day and returned to the Armory.

The next morning, Giovacchini awoke to see four high-spirited people wearing matching bright-yellow shirts who were mopping the armory's vast floor, laughing and talking the entire time. While people can sleep in the armory at night, they must leave early the following morning. Thinking that if she helped the cleaning crew she could stay in the warmth and safety of the armory for a few more hours, Giovacchini asked if she could volunteer.

That's how she became part of Downtown Streets Team, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness by putting people to work on community projects in exchange for food and housing vouchers and services.

Since its inception in 2006, about 500 people have received assistance from Downtown Streets Team, which also has offices in San Jose and Sunnyvale. Team members volunteer 20 hours a week — sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, serving free meals — and receive a weekly stipend in the form of gift cards or vouchers redeemable for food, clothing, toiletries, rent or cellphone minutes.

Wish Book readers can help Downtown Streets Team members rebuild their lives. Each $100 donation will buy a weekly gift card to such places as Target and Safeway so that team members can purchase necessities in exchange for their volunteer work.

The other 20 hours of the workweek are reserved for job hunting. Thanks to the group's career training, mentoring and other services, more than 130 volunteers have moved on to paying employment, said spokeswoman Ann-Marie Meacham.

But Giovacchini, 58, didn't know any of this on that winter day.

After spending several hours cleaning, she was surprised and pleased to receive a $10 grocery gift card and decided to continue staying and volunteering at the armory.

Her humbleness and drive caught the eye of Michael Davis, supervisor of operations for Downtown Streets volunteers. "She put 100 percent into what she was doing," Davis said.

Because of her demonstrated commitment, Giovacchini went on to a Downtown Streets volunteer position with the Opportunity Center, a Palo Alto facility offering services to those in need. She attracted attention there, too, Davis said, for adding a dignified touch by putting flowers on the lunch tables and chatting with diners. "She said she wanted to make people feel like they were in a restaurant buying a meal," he recalled. "She did not want them to think they were coming in and getting a handout. She wanted to create a better atmosphere."

Giovacchini said she got much in return: friendship from other volunteers who are also trying to better their lives and help from the program's staff. "They will help you find a solution to your problem," she said of Downtown Streets' officials. "They give you back your dignity, hope and support."

After landing a part-time job supervising young adults at an emergency shelter in San Jose, Giovacchini was recently able to move from temporary housing into her own apartment in a small, new complex owned by the city of San Jose and managed by Downtown Streets. Still wrestling with personal issues, she has not communicated with family members since walking away from home two years ago.

"They still don't know where I am," said Giovacchini, but she added she is "getting to that point" of being ready to reconnect.

Readers can help Downtown Streets Team with its goal of ending homelessness. Each $100 donation will buy a weekly gift card to places like Target and Safeway so that team members can purchase food, clothing and toiletries in exchange for volunteer work.


Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972.

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