On a recent clear, cold afternoon a crew of workers in colorful T-shirts swept downtown Berkeley gutters and sidewalks, collecting trash and raking up yellowed leaves.
Green shirts were team leaders. Yellow shirts marked team members, those who were in earlier stages of the program.
A few of the crew knew the neighborhood well, having slept in doorways or parks, or hung out on benches or stoops passing time until shelter doors open at the end of the day.
Many people familiar with downtown Berkeley have seen the downtown ambassadors, who also wear bright T-shirts and clean public spaces. But this team is new to the city, and different.
The crew is part of a program called Downtown Streets Team which launched in Berkeley in the fall of last year, and is still in ramp-up mode, according to Julia Lang, the Streets Team’s East Bay director. Unlike the ambassadors, who are paid employees, Streets Team members are volunteers, though they receive a stipend in the form of a gift card or help with phone or transportation costs for their time.
With the motto “Ending homelessness through the dignity of work,” the nonprofit Streets Team provides work experience and employment case management to people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Skills they can develop include punctuality, accountability, communication and leadership.
The goal is to help people land paid work, said Lang. Employment is a crucial foundation for stable housing, she said.
“It’s going great,” Lang said of the Berkeley program, which has 10 to 12 participants, with a capacity for 25. “We’d love to meet more community resources and let them know what we’re up to. Our current team members are doing a terrific job. They’re really dedicated. It’s a great stepping stone into employment.”
Streets Team, which started in Palo Alto in 2015, now operates in several cities in Northern California, including Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, San Jose, Santa Cruz and Sacramento. It’s funded by grants, donations, and contracts with the jurisdictions where it operates. In Berkeley, the program received a two-year, $326,000 contract with the Public Works Department.
According to the organization’s website, it has helped 811 participants find employment (lasting 90 days or more), and 848 find housing.
So far in Berkeley, teams work in the downtown and Telegraph Avenue neighborhoods. Other areas will be added as the program grows, Lang said.
In a region with a variety of services for those struggling with homelessness, Street Teams is unique because it narrows its focus to employment, Lang said.
“We are not mental-health experts and we’re not addiction counselors and we’re not a housing-first model, so we rely on other agencies and create partnerships so we can have a warm, trusting hand-off of our team members to get others services,” she said. “A big hallmark of our program is collaboration.”
Streets Team is open to anyone age 18 or over, with a requirement to attend a weekly meeting. Work hours are flexible, but usually range from 8 to 20 hours weekly, with a cap of 20 hours. Volunteers receive gift cards to Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Target and other major stores, or help with phone bills or transportation, based on how many hours they work. How they use the cards is up to them.
People learn of the program through word of mouth, and from shelters and other service organizations serving people on low incomes.
If you’re been out of the work force for a while and don’t have a stable address or much money, getting and keeping a job is a major challenge, Lang said. “A lot of people don’t want a hand-out, they want to earn what they get. That’s what we offer.”
Cleaning neighborhoods where people without homes tend to hang out or sleep is part of the win-win of the program, she said. “We’re changing the perception of homelessness to show that homeless folks are motivated and want to be part of the community in a meaningful way.”
This resonated with many of the Streets Team members working last month.
“I’m giving back to the streets because I live on the streets, ” said Terrance Smith, 58, who said he was born in Berkeley and has been homeless since 1996.
“I’ve been in plenty of programs. In this one, you’re giving something; you’re giving back. It’s a good foundation. It helps you bring up your character, to get grounded. I really want to be in a house; I want to be something stable. Being with this is helping to stabilize my life,” Smith said.
Smith said he heard about the program from someone at the North Berkeley Senior Center, where he used a computer to learn more.
Team member Riando, 35, said, “I would do this for free.” Riando, who grew up in Oakland and is staying with a relative in Fremont, learned about the program at the Berkeley Drop-in Center. “I’ll keep coming back until I find a real job,” he said.
Riando objects to the term homeless. “We’re unsheltered. Home is a place where you’re supposed to feel the most safe and connected to loved ones. Homeless is an insult.”
He says he feels a connection to Berkeley. “I feel like I have a special commitment to it.”
Maurice Lloyd, 48, is a Streets Team leader who was born in San Francisco, raised in Oakland, and living now in a Berkeley men’s shelter. The program opens a door, he said. “You’re trying to get another job, you’re trying to get housing, you’re trying to get self-sufficiency.”
He heard about the opportunity on the streets, he said. “ I came to the meeting on a Wednesday. I liked what I heard and I said OK, I’m going to go with that.”
Lloyd said he has a criminal record, which makes it even harder to get employment.
“I’m in a rebuilding stage,” he said. “The first thing you have to get is clear in your mind. But if you stay the course someone will give you a chance. If you take that chance you have to value it. You have to be using the resources that are available so you can become more self-sustaining.”
Wayne Jordan came to the Berkeley program as a team leader after participating in the San Francisco Streets Team for almost two years. He’s from Oakland, and is currently staying with family there.
“Streets Team got me back,” said Jordon, who also has a part-time paid job. “Because you’re doing something, you’re keeping active, you’re not stagnating.”
The gift cards are an important motivation, he added.
Team member Leona, 26, also staying in the shelter on Dwight Way, is from Missouri but has moved around living in Colorado and Hayward. Her aunt told her of the program.
“I haven’t regretted it once,” Leona said. “This job kills time and I like to kill time. A job is the best way to do that. They’re like a second family to me since my entire family shunned me. They treat me way better than my family. They’re the only ones, that’s why I cling to them.”
The pace of the work shift last month was steady, with leaves and debris disappearing from gutters and sidewalks on Milvia Street and Allston Way and being scooped into bins. The mood was calm, good-natured. “I get tired of being sick and tired,” Jordan said. “ The Streets Team keeps my brain active and healthy. This brings up your confidence and your esteem.”
Since this story was reported, Lloyd and Jordan have been hired in regular paid jobs by Streetplus, which runs the downtown ambassador program for the Downtown Berkeley Association. Streets Team is a natural pipeline to these jobs, since the neighborhood knowledge and skills are similar, Lang said.