Homeless investing in Palo Alto with Downtown Streets Team

Downtown Streets Team member Michelle Waters Pritchett serves lunch at Palo Alto’s Opportunity Center. (Photo: Sarah Scheenstra)

On a warm Thursday at the end of September, Michelle Waters Pritchett serves lunch to the homeless men and women at the Opportunity Center, a facility in Palo Alto offering services for the homeless and people in need.

Olive skinned, dark haired, and once homeless herself, Pritchett volunteers daily in the kitchen of the Opportunity Center as a member of Palo Alto’s Downtown Streets Team (DST), a nonprofit launched in 2005 to clean up the city’s dirty streets while helping the homeless help themselves.

DST operates on a “job first” model, based on the belief that a job – even a volunteer post like Pritchett’s – is the first step away from homelessness, towards a more stable future. Although it began with just four team members, all homeless at the time they joined, DST has grown to 46 participants with a 12-person waiting list. When DST launched in 2005, team members committed to volunteer jobs sweeping and cleaning the streets in Palo Alto.  Now, the  organization offers participants work beyond the streets thanks to three janitorial contracts with partner nonprofits, an arrangement with The Daily News for DST members to hand out free copies, and other contracts with Palo Alto-based companies.

Team members like Pritchett volunteer their services in return for food and housing vouchers and gift cards. After demonstrating their commitment, team members also gain access to employment search training, including resume workshops and mock job interviews which help move them towards full-time positions, permanent housing, and self-reliance. The program, says Pritchett, also “helps you to set goals for your future.”

Executive director Eileen Richardson estimates that since 2005, about 450 team members have participated in the program. They have landed a total of 152 jobs or housing placements.

Before Pritchett joined DST, she and her husband had lost their home and had spent time living in a hotel, two shelters, and a cockroach infested studio apartment.  Eventually, they moved into one of 88 low-income apartments at the Opportunity Center. Suffering from depression, Pritchett spent almost all of her time in her room.  It felt like “somebody had locked me up,” she says. Looking back, she realizes that she was actually locking herself away.

When she did go out, Pritchett would go down to the kitchen at the Opportunity Center and people watch. She began noticing DST members and the impact Streets Team seemed to make on them. She saw them become more financially stable and more emotionally positive.

“Some people were getting off of the streets, getting into shared housing. Purchasing cars, doin’ little things that they weren’t able to do before,” Pritchett said.

She began attending DST’s weekly meetings just to listen and observe. At the meetings, current team members sit around a conference table to assess progress, plan for the future, and celebrate successes. Team managers (who are DST participants themselves) give updates on their contracts.  Everyone has the opportunity to offer ideas or feedback, which is then often incorporated into the program. In many ways, it’s like a staff meeting.

Finally, one day, Pritchett spoke up. “I wanted the job so bad,” she recalls. “I said: ‘all you have to do is to give me a try. If I don’t live up to your expectations, you can kick my ass right out the door,’” she said. Everyone laughed and Richardson gave Pritchett the job in the kitchen at the Opportunity Center. As part of the position, she received $5 an hour in vouchers and her own DST shirt—yellow, signifying her entry-level status.  Later, if she worked hard, proved reliable, and arrived on time to meetings—she could qualify to graduate to a green shirt, denoting more responsibility within DST, and even eventually, move up to a blue or black shirt, signaling management responsibility on the team.

Michael Davis used to be known as “Mr. Thirty-Eight Fifty,” because he would panhandle $38.50 each day so that he could afford to rent a hotel room for the night. Now DST’s operations supervisor and currently the only black shirt on the team (there are only two blue shirts), Davis compares the shirt hierarchy to a ladder of achievement. “What you put in, is what you get out,” he says.

Some team members, like Davis, graduate through the ranks and become part of management, while others use DST as a stepping stone to a full-time job elsewhere.

Although technically a volunteer, Pritchett credits her DST job with giving her a new handle on life. She now spends part of each weekday downstairs in the kitchen, fixing food – she loves making pasta salads – serving meals, and interacting with everyone who drops by. “If I didn’t have this little job… I would probably be on psych meds right now,” she says.

DST doesn’t have the same transformative effect on all of its would-be participants.  For some, the vouchers simply aren’t enough incentive.  Bobby Graham, a formerly homeless veteran who is currently unemployed and recently attended his first DST meeting to “check it out,” says he wasn’t happy with the $5 an hour “pay.” He attended three of the weekly meetings but says he won’t be going back. “It ain’t no help. Period,” he says.

Many of those who do join don’t stick it out.  “The program’s designed for people who really want to work hard to help themselves,” says Christopher Richardson, program director and son of executive director, Eileen.  Eileen Richardson estimates that 25 percent of participants have dropped out in the past year—but that many end up coming back again later.

Still, the program is drawing attention inside and outside the region.  Jennifer Loving, interim executive director of Destination: Home, a non-profit working to end homelessness in Santa Clara County, believes DST’s approach is unique. “[The program is] driven by the clients themselves,” she says.

It’s also cost effective: DST spends just $8,000 to graduate someone off the streets, compared with the $65,000 per year the state spends on one homeless person.

The self-directed team effort, which gives participants a stake in the program’s management, has spawned spin-offs both in and outside the Bay Area: in Gilroy, at EHC LifeBuilders’ shelter in San Jose, and in Daytona Beach, Florida. The city of San Jose and non-profits in Fresno and Memphis, Tenn. are thinking of starting the program, and DST has also received calls expressing interest from other several other communities including Virginia Beach, Va., and Reno, Nev.

“When I saw this program [two years ago], it just made perfect sense,” says Rick Shiver, the founder of DST’s franchise Daytona Beach Program in Florida, which paid DST for the model, and then set up its own program. Shiver liked the fact that team members really had to earn their way. “They’re learning to work,” he says, “They’re learning that there’s rewards to what you do.”

Back in the Opportunity Center kitchen, Pritchett gathers forks, knives and candles to put on a cart with a cake from Safeway for DST’s September birthdays celebration, which will take place at the weekly meeting in a nearby room.

Meanwhile, most of the 46 current team members, about a dozen from the waitlist, and a smattering of staff and volunteers crowd around the conference table in the meeting room.

Team member David “Cadillac” Wormley, wearing a yellow shirt, opens the meeting. Christopher Richardson crosses the names of those not present off the waiting list and adds the names of several newcomers. Among them is Rashaad Reust, a young man sitting near the back. He hopes DST will help him support himself.

Next, Richardson congratulates Jerry Hendricks, who joined the team in April and just landed a job with Goodwill.

A green shirt team member announces some job openings posted on Craigslist. Richardson explains an upcoming computer tutorial on the basics of email and Microsoft Word.

Meanwhile, another team member tells Pritchett, still in the kitchen, that she’s needed in the meeting, which she doesn’t usually attend because she’s busy serving lunch.  “I just thought I was going in to get the happy birthday thing done,” said Pritchett later; her birthday had been the week before.

“We are growing right now,” Christopher Richardson says soon after Pritchett enters, “both in participation and green shirts.” He turns to Pritchett. The first green shirt is for her. She’s been promoted.

“I just got over-emotional,” Pritchett says later. “My whole body got warm and I was tingly.”

Almost exactly a year before Pritchett stood in the same meeting begging for a chance. Today she has a different message for the group. She wipes her eyes and holds up the shirt.   “You guys have actually helped to change my life,” she says. “I’m ready for the responsibilities of the shirt.”

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