How the Downtown Streets Team Cleared My Yard
By Paula Doubleday
I have lived in the Dominican neighborhood of San Rafael for 16 years. Last week I hired two homeless men to come and spend the morning clearing my yard. This is how it came about.
I met Andrew Hening, the Regional Director of the Downtown Streets Team, at Aroma Café a few weeks back. He is a young, energetic, enthusiastic man, eager to talk about the successes of the program. DST just celebrated 1 year in San Rafael and has seen a lot of success since their launch. The Team of 25-30 people work an average of 400 hours a week cleaning up our downtown, working with merchants on their specific needs and even discouraging loitering. They also help clean up during and after the Farmer’s Market. It is estimated 33% of the San Rafael homeless population has attended one of their weekly Wednesday meetings. Impressive.
Being Homeless is Hard
I read a lot of angry rants and black and white statements about the homeless on NextDoor.com. From “put them on a bus and send them away” to “they are ruining our city”, and everything in between. Unfortunately, the face of the homeless is often the person ranting outside Starbucks with soiled clothes asking for money. It scares people and they just want this taken care of. I get that.
But these are people and the face of the homeless is much broader than this. This is a complex issue with many moving parts. Andrew talks about the difficulty of being homeless. It is depressing. While there are people with mental illness and addiction issues, there is also a larger percentage of people who simply lost their job and had no safety net of family or money to bridge the gap until another job could be found. There are families living in cars with their children. There are elderly evicted from their homes with no place to go.
How Can I Make a Difference?
I asked Andrew if it was possible for the DST to do yard work for local residents. He has been working on other work opportunities for the Team hoping DST can become self-sustaining in a few years. When I asked if I could be a pilot program for team members to help with yard work, he agreed. He said he would choose a couple of men to come over and help.
The date was arranged and two men were driven to my house by Jaclyn, who works with Andrew, on a Thursday morning. I’ll call them Bob and Mike. Bob grew up in Novato, is in his fifties, five years sober, and most recently worked for a roofing company. The company had some issues and closed down 6 months ago. Previously he had made a living as a painter for a number of years. He has real skills. Bob is living in a shack (I assume that means no indoor plumbing) on his ex-employer’s property. He brought a bottle of water and a pear with him.
Mike, a young man in his twenties, born in New Jersey, arrived with a coat, a satchel and a plastic bag. I told him we could put his stuff inside while he was working. I found out later in the morning that Mike sleeps on the doorstep of a church and stashes his sleeping materials during the day. The items he brought with him were his valuables. Mike told me he is writing a book and that he is a poet. He used to attend poetry slams in Denver and perform his poems. He hopes to publish an e-book combined with a multi-media presentation. He was smart, articulate and hoping to get back to Denver in a few years to see his Mom.
These were two nice men. They worked hard. Bob has some physical issues but that didn’t stop him from pulling weeds. I worked with them the whole 3.5 hours until we had assembled 9 bags of clippings in neat rows to take to the dump.
I paid them for 4 hours, $15 an hour, and they were so appreciative of having money as opposed to gift cards. I drove them downtown and they talked about food the whole way. What was good to eat at the Farmer’s Market, how expensive everything was and what kinds of gift cards they get for their work.
Bob asked to be dropped off for lunch at St. Vincent’s. Mike got out of the car at the same spot but I think was looking to buy lunch elsewhere. I thanked them both. I told Mike to keep writing and hold onto his dream.
You Can Do This Too
We all have projects and need help. This is a way for you to get some help in your yard and make a difference in someone’s life. If you are interested, contact Andrew at Andrew@streetsteam.org.
More About Downtown Streets Team
I had originally arranged coffee with Andrew to get his perspective and understand his corner of the homeless issue. There are a couple important points Andrew made in our conversation.
First, many of us were raised in an environment where we saw our parents go to work on time, were expected to do our homework before TV, and rewarded for our successes. We had opportunities and learned our way in the work world, how to act, how to dress, how to communicate, how to care for not only ours, but other people’s property. Not everyone grows up with these gifts we take for granted. For some (not all) of the homeless, just learning to show up at a job is a success.
The Downtown Streets Team is an opportunity to learn to show up, do your job and get rewarded with pay, in the form of gift cards. The DST program also helps people then find a real job but it doesn’t stop there. Andrew explains they are the bridge between homeless and permanent housing/independence. When a team member gets a job, the involvement doesn’t stop there because they are still ON the bridge, not on the other side. So they stay in contact, they support, they mentor and if necessary, even intercede with an employer to keep the person on the job to help them get into the rhythm of this new life.
Andrew explains this is not an easy process or an easy solution. Every person is different. That was the second important point he made. Some people have a job, but just need a place to live or the rent deposit to get an apartment. Many people simply need a job that pays enough to afford to live in Marin (pretty hard). Others need medical care, mental health care, treatment for addiction. Some people have ongoing legal issues or they need a phone, an address for a job application, and on and on. The needs are varied, broad, but manageable. Bottom line is that it is one person at a time.
Read more about the Downtown Streets Team at their website: www.streetsteam.com/sanrafael
A recent Marin IJ story about DST: