Will clean for stipend

State and local money has expanded volunteer homeless cleanup crews to four parts of the city

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the April 18, 2019 issue.

For Mary Buck, Sacramento’s Downtown Streets Team is a reason to get up in the morning.

Buck, who slept on the streets and on the banks of the American River before she came to the winter triage shelter in North Sacramento a little over a year ago, says she hadn’t had a job since 1992. Now, five days a week, four hours a day, she joins her yellow-shirt donning team doing what she described as a “real, paying job.”

“The team is awesome. I love it,” Buck said. “There’s nothing more I could ask for than to wake up in the morning and work for the streets team.”

The Downtown Streets Team is a nonprofit organization founded in Palo Alto almost 15 years ago. Volunteers who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness clean up debris and trash on a designated route. Since 2005, the organization has expanded to 12 cities, including Sacramento in January 2018.

Sacramento’s first team was created through funds associated with the winter triage shelter, out of which the original team operates. Then early last November, the Sacramento team received $600,000 in funding from California’s homeless emergency aid program, HEAP, after the city declared an emergency homeless shelter crisis.

Thanks to that funding, four new teams totaling 40 members volunteer in five different parts of the city. Teams started in the River District and Central City in February. The Broadway Corridor team started last month. An additional private team, fully funded by Blue Diamond Growers, operates with six team members out of its corporate campus, serving the immediate area, said Rachel Davidson, director and project manager for Sacramento’s teams.

Davidson said HEAP funding covered all costs associated with the program, including the stipend that team members receive in exchange for their work.

In November 2018, the city also approved $400,000 from the general fund to help create two full-time positions dedicated to trash clean-up and disposal equipment, said the city’s homeless services coordinator, Emily Halcon. Halcon says these funds also support Sacramento’s Downtown Streets Team, the park maintenance crew, the police Impact Team and other public works employees who encounter homelessness throughout the city.

Bob Erlenbusch, director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, criticized the city’s use of the funding. Erlenbusch said it was a missed opportunity to create a “fairly robust homeless employment program.”

To join, potential members must attend the team’s weekly Wednesday meetings at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Those interested must raise their hands in the beginning of the meeting, reserving spots on a wait list so long as they attend every subsequent meeting. Davidson says that individuals are often on the wait list for months at a time, with 100 percent attendance.

“What it tells us is that folks are hungry for a program that offers a low barrier entry and a sustainable path out of homelessness,” Davidson said.

Aside from providing stipends, the organization helps volunteers find employment and housing opportunities, sign up for state and federal benefits and health care, Davidson said.

“The stigma that homeless people don’t do anything doesn’t stand true,” said Downtown Street Teams supervisor Nelson Moore. “Everyone on this team is practically homeless and they come out volunteering to pick up and clean up and to beautify.”