Bay Area Downtown Streets Team visits Ashland to share info on its program
Councilor Marsh invited Downtown Streets Team to Ashland to find out what's working there
It starts with a broom and ends with 800,000 cigarette butts recycled into park benches and more than a million gallons of trash collected.
It’s the gospel of restoring dignity and hope to those who have lost faith as told by Chris Richardson of the Downtown Streets Team of Palo Alto, Calif. He and his organization have spread from one community to cities all over the Bay Area, creating work and purpose for homeless and travelling people while solving the problems of aggressive behavior and criminal offenses in communities.
Richardson visited Ashland to discuss ways of dealing with growing tensions between buskers, panhandlers, travelers and downtown business people and residents. He was invited by city Councilor Pam Marsh, who says, “This is the missing piece here. We have temporary services but no real building capacity to help people essentially rejoin the community.”
Marsh lived in Palo Alto, serving on its Planning Commission and as executive director of the Santa Clara County Cities Association, before moving to southern Oregon in 1994.
Richardson and his organization, founded in 2005 and now active in San Rafael, San Francisco, Sunnyvale and San Jose, as well as Palo Alto, offer homeless people, travelers and the “home-free” the opportunity to be part of teams to clean up their community. In exchange they get a basic needs stipend in non-cash awards, a yellow T-shirt identifying them as part of the team and a new sense of self-esteem.
“Once people feel good about themselves,” says Richardson, “they’re pretty unstoppable.”
In one effort, collected cigarette butts were converted by the TerraCycle company into plastic pellets and park benches
The Street Team’s success where others have failed hinges on privacy and dignity. They don’t make judgments or demands about addiction or mental health issues, says Richardson. As long as they show up, do the work without erratic or difficult behavior, they get the stipend. He compares it to the non-homeless who drink or smoke marijuana after work and on weekends: “As long as you don’t come to work drunk, you’re boss doesn’t care.”
Richardson said this program works because people can see the difference. They see someone who was panhandling one day now wearing his yellow shirt and whistling while sweeping the sidewalk.
Another big component is knowing that every person who is homeless has a different reason for being where they’re at, so one “cookie-cutter solution” doesn’t work for everyone. Richardson says they work to help people get a feeling for what it’s like to be homeless.
Part of what the Street Team does to create understanding and engagement among local businesses, landlords and communities at large is to create poverty simulators where people switch sides for a few days and see the problems of long-term poverty and homelessness. Small things, such as the amount of trash that is generated when you don’t have washable plates and glasses, often surprise people.
Richardson points out being homeless creates issues that you don’t have when you’re housed.
“It’s inherently criminal to be homeless in America,” says Richardson. Much of what is considered criminal is a consequence of not having a house to go to — such as illegal camping, trespassing, loitering and littering. Other issues, like going to the bathroom and intoxication, are also things that, if they happen inside a home, are not a problem, but become issues if you’re outside.
Richardson spoke Friday morning to a full room in the Ashland Public Library. Listening were county and city officials, as well as business people and the general public. Richardson offered to set up an office here. He said he asked staff members before coming to Ashland how many would relocate to this office and Richardson claims every hand went up. The cost is roughly $200,000 to $300,000. Funding often comes from government funds, such as community development block grants and corporations. He also said businesses contribute to the Downtown Streets Team program.
He had some other numbers to share as well. Among the communities where they operate, Richardson claims homelessness is down 54 percent, crime is down 50 percent and panhandling is down 75 percent.
Ashland City Council member Mike Morris said, “I think what we’re doing now isn’t working. This is worth looking into. I have some fiscal questions to be answered, but I do think a program like this builds self-worth.”
Richardson confirms this, saying not only does this program assist the community and create a gateway to getting jobs and being housed for the homeless, but 90 percent who participate report an increase in their self-esteem. When a person joins, they are told, “Welcome to the team, you’re one of the good guys.”
Next steps would be deciding if a Street Team would be right for Ashland, determining the funding and getting local businesses and residents behind the program.