The homeless men and women step off the van and get straight to work. They pick up trash and bottles, and as they do, business owners and residents cheer them on – honking, clapping and even handing out refreshments.
It’s part of a pilot program in San Diego that hires homeless people to help clean up the city’s streets. And it was started by a 16 year-old boy: Kevin Barber.
Barber got the idea from a TED Talk video showcasing a similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that invited panhandlers to clean local streets in exchange for fair wages and access to city services.
“It just looked really simple, and the statistics were staggering,” the high school junior told CNN.
Cities across the country are using programs like the one in Albuquerque to provide hundreds of part-time jobs to the homeless. Barber wanted to implement one in San Diego, which hosts the country’s fourth-largest homeless population.
It’s an issue the young activist was keenly aware of from conversations he had with his mother, an emergency room physician who interacts with the homeless on a daily basis.
“I see so many people who just don’t have many opportunities,” Dr. Carolyn Barber said.
So mother and son reached out to the city government to start a trial run of the homeless program.
It’s called “Wheels for Change.” Participants get paid $11.50 an hour. Kevin’s mom felt so strongly about the cause that she donated the funds to pay for the six-month pilot.
The city is considering financing the program moving forward. Local politicians are also getting on board.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said City Councilman Scott Sherman. Employing the homeless population to clean up the city has the added benefit of easing the burden on San Diego’s sanitation department.
Feeling relevant again
Several times a week, a van picks up eight to ten people from one of the downtown homeless shelters. The workers travel to different locations, removing trash and debris from many of the same sidewalks and park benches where they once used to sleep.
Bob McElroy, who helps the homeless through the non-profit Alpha Project said he’s seen the program’s impact on the streets and on the faces of the homeless workers as their fellow citizens come out and cheer their efforts.
“It’s just so medicinal for our folks who have always been marginalized and irrelevant,” he said.
After their shift, workers are brought back to the shelter and given their pay in cash. But their job isn’t over. They are expected to connect other homeless people with the services that the city and Alpha Project offer. Word of mouth is spreading; the waiting list to participate in “Wheels of Change” is more than 150 names long.
“Lord have mercy, our folks just wanted to participate,” McElroy exclaimed. “San Diego is going to be spotless by the time we are through with this.”
Susan Graham is one of these motivated folks. She was having suicidal thoughts just a couple weeks ago when she was brought to the Alpha Project shelter. After seven days there, she was introduced to the “Wheels of Change” program. Graham eagerly signed up.
“To give back means a lot to me because they have given so much to me,” she said.
Graham plans to participate regularly in the program and has been placed in an apartment after eight months of homelessness.
“This is a miracle. I am a miracle,” she said.
The first item Graham put up on her wall as decoration – $46 in cash she earned from her first day of work with “Wheels of Change.”
High school student Kevin Barber is already working to expand the program and hopes to improve San Diego one work shift at a time.
“Our goal is to get another van and have it go more days of the week,” he said. “Helping as many people as we can.”