William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sat, 9 Jul 2005 10:07:24 -0400


Sat, Jul. 09, 2005

Homeless recruited to help clean up downtown streets


By Kellie Schmitt and David Herbert

Mercury News

Barry Hudson, who's been homeless for the past five years, spends his days
hanging out on the sidewalks of downtown Palo Alto. Now, he's cleaning them,
Hudson, 43, sweeps, plants flowers, and picks up trash 20 hours a week as
part of a new program designed to clean up the busy University Avenue
area -- while giving a boost to a few homeless people who want to work.
Behind the program, the first of its kind in the Bay Area, are the same
downtown retailers and restaurant owners who have long complained that
loitering homeless people drive customers away. In a downtown where
panhandlers crowd out shoppers for the best spots on the corner benches,
organizers hope the Downtown Streets Team program will get the homeless off
the sidewalks and into the workforce.
Hudson hopes so, too. ``I feel like I am living again,'' he said, proudly
sporting a blue jacket and bright-yellow T-shirt, his team uniform.
The six-man Streets Team members work Wednesdays through Sundays, sweeping
downtown sidewalks with brooms and dustpans provided by the organizers.
They're planning to plant flowers in some dusty planters in Lytton Plaza,
now filled with dead weeds. As an incentive to stick with the program,
participants receive $100 in weekly credits at stores including Walgreens,
Safeway and Wal-Mart.
``We hope we can use this as something the rest of the nation can look at to
revive downtown areas and help the homeless issue,'' said Eileen Richardson,
the former CEO of Napster, who was hired this month by the 750-member Palo
Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association to direct the program.
``It kills two birds with one stone.''
A similar program, also partly funded by businesses, made a big difference
in New York City, helping several thousand of the city's homeless make the
transition into full-time jobs cleaning the streets, or doing light
construction and paperwork.
Organizers acknowledge that it's hard to ease people from a life on the
streets to a disciplined lifestyle with a full-time job. They're trying to
find the folks who may have hit some rough times but want to work again --
not the people suffering from severe alcoholism, drug addictions or mental
Participants are paired with mentors from local businesses, and meet once a
week at a downtown hotel to discuss career options. Eventually, they hope to
earn valuable references -- and maybe even a job lead -- from owners who see
their dedication firsthand.
The team's leader is Norm Carroll, a local homeless advocate who once lived
on the streets himself. For this first round, which will last a year,
Carroll tried to select candidates who were eager to work, reliable and
sober. He's already heard from three more people eager to join the team. In
the future, the organization might ask social-service agencies to recommend
``What we're trying to do is get them ready emotionally, mentally and
practically for transitioning back to employment,'' said Sujata Mody, the
program coordinator for Springboard Forward, the Mountain View non-profit
group that is administering the program. ``Part of the issues these guys are
dealing with is they don't have much to do with themselves during the day.''
It wasn't as simple as having a good idea and starting out, local business
leaders found. In order to comply with the state's employment and minimum
wage laws, they had to find a non-profit to administer the program, delaying
the intended start date. The business group chipped in $20,000 for the seed
costs of what they refer to as a ``start-up,'' and hope that donations and
fundraisers will keep the program going.
They commissioned Springboard Forward to administer the program because of
the non-profit's experience with on-the-job coaching and mentoring to
entry-level workers. Since it's a non-profit, it is also exempt from the
state's minimum wage laws, which allow people to perform services for
non-profits without getting paid.
In the six weeks since the program started, the response has been mostly
favorable on both sides.
Emilio Lopez, manager of association member Pizza My Heart, said the program
was long overdue. His restaurant is located right next to Lytton Plaza, the
informal hub of Palo Alto's homeless transients, which is often trashed, day
and night, by loiterers. His employees have to clean up the plaza several
times a week. Lopez said he tries to accommodate the homeless, giving them
cups of water and donating leftover pizzas to a nearby shelter, but added
that they are bad for business.
``If you have people hanging out and loitering, it keeps families away,'' he
Team member Lonnie Gullette said he'd rather receive cash than store
vouchers, and has already tried -- with limited success -- to barter a $100
Walgreens gift card for cash. He said he needs the money for a haircut and
the laundromat.
Organizers said they understand there may be slip-ups, but the rules -- such
as showing up on time, sober and in uniform -- are strict. Three strikes and
you're out, Richardson said.
Carroll, who once struggled with alcoholism, said he's eager to get back to
work. Carroll's last paycheck came from a deli in Milpitas that's now
closed, so he'd love fresh references from downtown business leaders. And
the vouchers have brought him much-needed items such as shoes he purchased
at Wal-Mart.
It can get boring sweeping the streets, but the idea is a good one, Carroll
``Anything that could possibly work is a good thing to try.''

Contact Kellie Schmitt at kschmitt@mercurynews.com or (650) 688-7558.