Jul 28, 2014

San Rafael to Put the Homeless to Work

Downtown Streets Team program will create a group of 12 homeless people who will work to clean up downtown in exchange for food or housing vouchers. Do you support the program? Tell us in the comments!

San Rafael to Put the Homeless to Work San Rafael to Put the Homeless to Work


The San Rafael City Council unanimously approved Tuesday night a $272,000 one-year program to create a team of homeless people who will beautify downtown in exchange for food or housing vouchers. 

The Palo Alto-based nonprofit Downtown Streets Team will create a 12-person team overseen by two full-time staff people — a project manager and employment specialist.

The team members will work up to 20 hours a week, cleaning streets, sidewalks and public parking areas downtown. In return, they will each earn $100 for weekly food or housing vouchers. The participants will be encouraged to use the other 20 hours in their week for job search activities, including a 9-week job search skills class.

The team will also contract with private businesses for cleanup services. 

Downtown Streets Team has successful programs in Palo Alto and San Jose, according to San Rafael city staff.

“We have changed the perception of the homeless,” Downtown Streets Team Director of Program Operations Chris Richardson told the council Tuesday night.

Richardson told the council there also has been a decrease in the number of panhandlers and homeless-related crimes in Palo Alto since the program began.

The program provides a positive way for individuals to rebuild their self-esteem, said Andrew Henning, Downtown Streets Team manager of employment services. Henning will work with the volunteers on the San Rafael streets every day once the program is up and running in a few months. 

The program also helps its participants while “rebuilding their dignity, re-engaging with the regular community and becoming part of a team that encourages and supports them as they work toward rebuilding their lives,” according to the San Rafael Streets Team Project Proposal (see it attached in the staff report at the right).

Several community members, including representatives from the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County and the Marin Partnership to End Homelessness, expressed support for the program.

But a few members of the community were more wary.

Ritter Center custody-to-community case manager Dominique McDowell said the program should do more to address substance abuse and mental health, aside from its basic requirement that people be sober when they show up to work. “These people carry a lot of trauma and issues.”

Rev. Paul Gaffney, with the Marin Interfaith Council, said he isn’t an opponent of the program as some of the media has portrayed, but he does have a few concerns. “When I look at the numbers of the project, I don’t see the lion’s share of the funding going to the people who are on the street,” he said, adding that the administrative costs seem to be to high for the program.

The Marin Community Foundation has contributed $50,000 for the program. Marin General Hospital will contribute $100,000 and Kaiser will contribute $50,000 cash and $50,000 in-kind services to the project. Finally, Marin County officials have agreed to donate $25,000 toward the effort and county staff will ask the Board of Supervisors to fund an additional $25,000. 

The city will spend $47,000 on the project from its “Homeless Initiative” funds.

San Rafael Councilman Damon Connolly applauded the project for representing a partnership between the city and the community. “This is a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that it’s part of the city’s multifaceted approach to address homelessness issues. “We recognize this is a big issues for the public and very much a concern to the residents.”

Council members Katie Colin and Barbara Heller agreed.

But Councilman Andrew McCullough said he was sympathetic to some of the “skeptics” who spoke on the topic at the meeting. He said he was curious if the program “would make a dent in the tractable problem” in the community.

“In 12 months, I really hope we know what it will mean to say this program is successful,” McCullough said. “For me, the jury will be out, but I’m exited about the potential this program holds.”

Mayor Gary Phillips agreed. “If this doesn’t work we’ll try something different.”

Homelessness is a “huge problem” in San Rafael, Phillips said. “Our community is so compassionate and willing to help those who have challenges in life that have brought them to this state, but — make no mistake — our community is not tolerant to [the issues] we see.” 

The program fits a unique niche in Marin, where many transients aren’t ready for the county’s several employment related services and other San Rafael programs, such as St. Vincent’s or the Ritter Center, provide food, medical and support services without a formal requirement to “give back” to the community, according to San Rafael city staff.

The project is one of the multiple long-term and short-term recommendations city staff brought to the in October 2012 after a City Council subcommittee and stakeholders group developed the ideas, which address issues including mental health, serial inebriates, crime, affordable housing and public education. 


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