Christopher Kan is a biologist by training and a biotech professional working at the intersection of biology, people, and business. He is also an atheist who goes to church. At the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, CA, Kan values the denomination’s focus on community service, in which he plays an active role. One major issue he and his fellow church members have been tackling is the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area. Kan recently gained local attention for his leadership in a two-year campaign to create a safe parking program in the church lot. This effort made four spots available for unhoused people to stay in their cars overnight. Kan talked to ESAL about the collaboration needed to navigate the local approval process and how his science communication skills helped bring the project to fruition.
LZ: Before the safe parking program, you already had a lot of volunteer experience. How did you get into community service?
Kan: I was raised with a public service ethos. I organized my first trash pick-up when I was 8. My dad worked with folks in Chinatown, recent immigrants and elderly folks who have less of a safety net, so I had that example early on. I really don’t see myself as seeking out opportunities; it just happens and permeates my life. I’m that person who reports the broken street light. It takes 30 seconds on an app, but then kids can walk home safely from baseball practice, because cars can see them.
LZ: How has your STEM and business background informed your approach to volunteering?
Kan: It goes hand-in-hand with figuring out how to communicate a message. As scientists and engineers, we’re all very data driven. We want tangible results and want to make sure they are efficacious, safe, and morally sound. Frankly, managing a committee inside a company versus a city council - it’s the same thing. For me, it’s how much result I can get per unit time. The organizational piece of moving between these labyrinthian systems comes naturally to me. I’m lucky to be able to use that skill in my nonprofit work.
LZ: What led your church to create this safe parking program for people experiencing homelessness? How did it come about?
Kan: I didn't come up with the idea. One of my secrets is that I'm great at hearing ideas and making them happen. There was another church member who said there's this parking program the city is trying to start and we have the space. I joined the group and started going through the boring paperwork process, like getting insurance. When everything kicked into high gear, all these volunteers in our church came out of the woodwork. One volunteer’s entire job was scheduling calls with the city council. She's a working mom, so she does not have time, but she made time. We had the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and most of the churches in town involved in the conversation. It was like a circus. We did eventually get approval and community buy-in.
LZ: How does the safe parking program work?
Kan: We provide a safe space for homeless people living in their cars to sleep at night. The program is transitional and the goal is to get them employed and into a permanent housing situation. We partner with a local agency that handles the social work and connects them to other housing programs like Section 8. We’ve already been placing people in housing and had our first person in housing in less than 30 days.
LZ: What were some of the challenges you faced?
Kan: The first challenge was internal. Churches have a lot of committees and there were existing people using the facilities, so potential conflicts could arise there. We ran internal sessions to get members on board with this new program, which we were trying to start during COVID. There were a thousand details, but also a thousand hands pitching in as well. Where will they use the bathroom? Who is going to snake out the wi-fi router to face the lot? All these tiny things had to happen in addition to the city’s process. We had to dig up architectural plans and verify our insurance, and we had to prove that we met fire code. The amazing thing is that our volunteers helped with every single one of these items.
LZ: What were the concerns around the parking program? And what was the key to getting it resolved?
Kan: The community had concerns about safety. We did not communicate adequately at first that we prescreened program participants to make sure they go to a shelter that is best positioned to help them. I think it goes back to science communication in that there was this misconception that homeless people were inherently dangerous and that we were not thoughtful in who was accepted. We said, no, the people in the shelter are just like you and me. They are on social security. They went to college. They have kids in school with yours. We didn't communicate the message effectively the first time, but we eventually got it.
LZ: What advice do you have for people who are trying to navigate their local bureaucracy?
Kan: I wouldn’t feel discouraged. If you’re okay with dipping your toes in, you will figure it out. The nice thing at the local level is that everyone wants good things to happen where they live or work, so they’re going to try to help. It’s not a solo endeavor. I think so many of us work as individual contributors. We feel like an island, but when we really reflect back on our best work, it’s usually the work we did with other people. Volunteering is not an exception.
LZ: What advice do you have for scientists and engineers to get involved locally? How can someone get started?
Kan: I suggest finding something local that bugs you. You can probably find something in your town that you don’t like or could be better. Maybe it's getting kids to school safely. Maybe it's the fact that no one recycles properly. There's a lot of low hanging fruit. One thing we forget with how nationalized our conversation is is that the people who control trash collection and fix the power grid live in our town. They work in city hall. They don't work in Washington, DC. Ninety-nine percent of what affects us on a day-to-day level happens within five miles of our house. As scientists and engineers, it's not a coincidence that we tend to be in the right place. We try to stand for truth in our professions and can do so in our personal lives as well.
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