A nonprofit that enlists homeless people to clean city streets while helping them find a job and home debuted in Redwood City late last month.
Downtown Streets was founded in Palo Alto nearly 15 years ago and has since expanded to as many cities, the latest being Redwood City. The nonprofit recruits local homeless people to serve as “team members,” who can be seen every weekday morning beautifying downtown in brightly colored shirts. Within a few months, crews will be deployed throughout the city to not only clean streets but also spruce up homeless camps.
“I describe it as a volunteer community of folks who are cleaning up their city and in doing so building a solid foundation to get out of homelessness, motivating each other and bringing each other hope and dignity,” said Chris Richardson, chief program officer for Downtown Streets.
Crews log about 20 hours of work a week, and the afternoon after every shift is spent connecting team members with services. Every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., a meeting is held at the Dragon Theatre to celebrate the successes of the team members. Anyone is welcome to attend.
“The meetings are really the heart and soul of the organization,” Richardson said. “Someone might say I got my ID back today and haven’t had anything with my name on it for years. Someone else might say I got housing. We try to celebrate achievements, share resources and we always have food.”
Five team members were recruited in the program’s first week in the city and Richardson expects the group to quickly grow to at least 25. Team members volunteer for the program and are not paid for their work, but are given a weekly stipend up to $135 to cover food or transportation costs, among other expenses.
There are multiple levels in the program and team members are given a different colored shirt every time they’re promoted: newcomers start with a yellow shirt, managers don green and supervisors wear blue.
“We want folks to see our team in action and for employers to see them and transition them to jobs and transition the narrative about homelessness,” Richardson said. “[The program] really empowers them to show the public ‘hey we’re not all criminals, we’re not all active users, we’re not all folks with mental health crises. We’re positive contributors to your community.’”
And street cleaning is not the only service crews will provide.
“The goal is to establish more street cleaning routes as well as diversifying what a work shift looks like,” said Project Manager Matty Shirer. “Maybe that’s working with a local theater and building stage props for shows, maybe it’s working at a school — the possibilities are endless. It’s what does the community want us to do and we’ll find ways to do it.”
Redwood City police Officer Chris Rasmussen, who is the Police Department’s homeless outreach coordinator, was instrumental in bringing Downtown Streets to the city. He celebrated the program for bringing a new approach to supporting the city’s homeless community.
“I was looking at this program for over a year to fill a gap in homeless services in the city,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a team philosophy, a family type setting where everyone’s helping each other. It’s far different than what we’ve been doing where one service provider goes to the homeless community to get them services.”
Team members echoed Rasmussen’s assessment of the program that is already changing lives in the city.
“I’ve seen people get into houses — the success stories through this organization are just phenomenal,” said team member Kim P. “This organization has helped a lot of people and it unites them. It’s a unity thing. We’ve created a very tight-knit family.”
Team member Catherine Poston is currently unemployed and sleeping in a van, but is confident that will soon change after Downtown Streets case workers provided her with gas money, helped her draft a resume, which she’s sending to employers, and provided her with promising housing leads.
“There’re endless benefits to being involved in this program. It’s a very positive way to get yourself back on track,” she said. “In just 30 short days, things are looking promising for me. I haven’t felt this happy in years.”
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