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!


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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    Alex Horvath February 20, 2013 at 02:17 PM
    I used to know a homeless guy who has since passed on. "Gary" thought himself a bit better than the rank and file homeless, and had a grand idea for employing the others: "Why not make them Human Parking Meters"? he once suggested. San Rafael's plan is really not much different...
    Rishayan February 20, 2013 at 06:05 PM
    San Rafael's plan might at first seem generous, but it certainly is not. It is nothing more than Slavery. The African slaves brought to this country were given food and shelter in exchange for work. This is no different. People must be paid hard cash for their work, even if it's a humble amount. Furthermore, requiring the homeless to participate in a "job search" program is nothing more than the same anti-freedom mentality used coast to coast that the poor should "work" for the rich. Give the poor and homeless what we have the God given right to: Land! Land, so that we can work for ourselves and not for the rich.
    Stacie Strassberg February 20, 2013 at 06:06 PM
    This is GREAT! It's a step in the right direction. It is not slavery, but a way for them to give back to their community and giving them self worth!
    Kevin Moore February 20, 2013 at 06:22 PM
    Where is the Buck fund money? Isn't this the type of program Beryl Buck wanted to fund? 20 hours of work at minimum wage is much more than $100. I can see that lawsuit coming. Let the city play banker and offer substantial discounts for housing and meals to avoid having the money misspent. Long term, this may end up being a maintenance program for the mentally ill. Hopefully, there will be a way to go upward for those who were depressed and down on their luck.
    Gene Jackson February 20, 2013 at 07:07 PM
    Nice idea; I do have a question regarding the allotment of the $272,000. Twelve people earning $100 per week times fifty two weeks = $62,400. How does the city account for the remaining $209,000?
    William Callahan February 20, 2013 at 07:46 PM
    I was there last evening and spoke. I said I was pleased but not excited about the program. Basically, I said we could have done a lot better, that too few people are being served and offered too few benefits to participants and community. I say this because I attended all of the City's Homelessness Stakeholders meetings and spoke at each, offering a plan that would put our waste to work, that would put a lot of people to work, especially those at the bottom in our community, for the greater benefit of community (health and vitality). While my idea of putting waste to work might sound really crazy, believe me its not. I believe I understand the full extent of what we waste here in Marin. I believe we are throwing away upward of $82 million a year. Think about what $82 million a year would mean to our local economy. Today, this potential is being buried in our landfills and burned in our incinerators to produce energy for a moment in time. Yes, we do some recycling and that's great, but recycling produces little money in our community and few jobs. I'm not talking about cans and card board, I'm talking about building materials (wood, stone, glass and metals), I'm also talking about the high quality wood from downed trees in our community that are ground up, I'm talking about a lot of perfectly fine products and materials (tons) that are tossed and wasted away everyday here in Marin. We today can no longer afford to waste, be it natural resources or human potential.
    Reginald "Rex" Henderson February 20, 2013 at 09:58 PM
    Great idea!
    Reginald "Rex" Henderson February 20, 2013 at 09:59 PM
    Spoken like someone who has never worked a day in her life.
    Reginald "Rex" Henderson February 20, 2013 at 09:59 PM
    "Administrative" costs...
    Stacie Strassberg February 20, 2013 at 11:22 PM
    I've worked many days and still working...
    Michael February 21, 2013 at 02:05 AM
    about time we get something for the handouts from the taxpayers. I believe that the same should be in place for food stamps. Want these? then take this broom and bag and go clean. When you give us a days work you get a days worth of food stamps. Any able bodied person who wants a taxpayer handout should be willing to work for it. Just like the rest of us do in the real world work to pay taxes to help them. .
    Marinj February 21, 2013 at 04:21 PM
    I agree that those receiving assistance should contribute something to the community providing that assistance. Slavery? That analogy would be laughable if it were not so offensive. When you work and earn what you are provided it elevates you in your mind and those of your peers. I believe working for something and succeeding makes pride and that is something at a deficit in our homeless population. I am sure the city will not kidnap homeless people from say Iowa and rip them from their families and force them to work for rice and beans while beating them senseless. I believe this is a volunteer program. I think, if done properly, this is a gift to our homeless and will give them something hard to come by on the streets - pride in themselves and their community.
    Katrina Paulsen February 21, 2013 at 06:36 PM
    I, too, support this compassionate step in relatedness between the street people of San Rafael, the City, and its other citizens. I've long had the idea that if I had lots of money, I would pay street people to carry out the inumerable ideas I have for making our world a better place. I challenge all of us continue to come up with ideas that work economically. I would like to see the "jobs" that are performed be more than just picking up trash. Go with small tasks that people will want to do -- or pay them for their music and art. Many of the downtown street people (and I know many of them) are kind, talented and smart. I don't know all the challenges and mental illness or preferences that keep them from being gainfully employed, but I'm not here to judge them about that or their circumstances or their choices. I'm here to live peaceably and compassionately within my downtown community. (I live and work and love Downtown San Rafael -- and I almost always feel safe on the streets.) I'd volunteer to come up with long lists of tasks that could be done by street people and/or homeless people and/or youth, if there's money available to pay for it!
    Diane Linn February 21, 2013 at 09:39 PM
    Ritter Center is in strong support of the Downtown Street Teams and celebrate the City of San Rafael taking the lead to make it happen. Our team will work hard to coordinate efforts to help the participants succeed. This approach could really help change the dynamic is downtown San Rafael for business, citizens, visitors and those experiencing homelessness. Diane Linn, Executive Director, Ritter Center
    Reginald "Rex" Henderson February 22, 2013 at 07:14 AM
    Undoubtedly, Ritter Center will benefit from this program...financially, local prestige, etc.
    Rishayan February 22, 2013 at 09:07 PM
    Give us Land! Period! God gave the land in common to all humans so that we may use it to live on or work on and use it to support ourselves without being dependent on the rich and their "charity". Although many homeless would prefer to be wage-slave workers for the rich, some of us demand the return of the land the anglo invaders stole. Then we would never be "homeless" or landless again. It's very hard work to live off the land, but we would be free, and that's more important than anything else in life.
    Rishayan February 22, 2013 at 09:23 PM
    Excellant ideas. But unfortunately, thanks to the fascist governments interference in the human right to work by the unending rules, regulations, laws, taxes, permissions, etc. that the fascists place in the private work relationship between a small business owner or employer and a potential worker, casual labor is now completely illegal most everywhere in the united states. Casual Labor is how I've been supporting myself when in the US from coast to coast for the past 35 years, but in the last 10, It's become almost impossible now to find casual labor(odd jobs), so I've been reduced to a landless beggar. People give me food and occasionally money,but it's a horrible way to live that the fascist government has forced me to accept by denying me the human right to use the land legally to live on and the human right to work without government interference i.e. casual labor.
    Cori Castro March 04, 2013 at 05:31 PM
    "...Project Manager, Employment Specialist, and 2 full time staff members..." I'm sure all who will be making far more than $5.00 an hour. What happened to the minimum wage?
    Dave Peery March 07, 2013 at 07:32 AM
    Just ask the citizens, homeless, and formerly-homeless in Palo Alto, San Jose, and Sunnyvale - and you will think differently of the Downtown Streets Team program. It will make a huge difference in San Rafael.
    Capwhan April 02, 2013 at 09:34 PM
    Sounds like it would work to me.
    Sarah Gant April 19, 2013 at 01:40 PM
    The comments above seem to fall into two categories: Those who are willing to try a new solution to an old problem, and those who want to talk endlessly about the problem. I say try. Get it done. Solve the Problem. Treat people kindly and fairly. Interact with the issue. Here is a stanza from a favorite poem: "To Be of Use" by Marge Piercy. ... I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
    Anita R April 29, 2013 at 11:59 PM
    There is a PDF attached to this article that includes the proposal and the budget. I am overall in favor of trying this approach for the reasons outlined in the article and comments. The proposal explains that the intent is to expand the number of team members; they also need to get in-kind contributions for things such as office space. I applaud San Rafael (where I also live) for trying something creative.
    Jason Schwager June 16, 2013 at 11:42 PM
    Cash may be better than vouchers, but to arrive at that we'd have to know the inner workings of the Street Teams project. Back on February 20th Gene Jackson made an interesting observation leaving $209,000 in question. While I agree with comments over land and cash, no little program such as Street Teams can do everything. Moving in a solution direction beats doing nothing. Diane Linn, Executive Director of Ritter supports this program. If she supports it, and as Sarah Grant sagely noted, we can either try something new or snipe endlessly about the problem, then I support it too.
    Jason Schwager June 16, 2013 at 11:46 PM
    When San Rafael votes with its heart they will restore the barbeque to Boyd Park.


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