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Word on the Street

By Katherine Matuszak | Photos Courtesy of Downtown StreetsTeam

What would happen if you lost your job tomorrow? For some of our neighbors, job loss and the lack of affordable housing have led to homelessness in greater numbers than ever before. Amid California’s homelessness crisis, Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit organization, is doing something about it.

In 15 Northern California cities, crews in bright yellow shirts work five days a week, cleaning up their communities. These hardworking teams are made up of local people experiencing homelessness. They spend their days cleaning waterways, picking up cigarette butts, sweeping downtown streets, and doing peer-to-peer outreach.

In exchange for working on a Downtown Streets Team, team members receive gift cards to help with basic needs along with access to case managers to assist them with employment and housing. Everyone’s needs are different, and case managers help team members with their individual goals, such as obtaining an updated ID so they can apply for jobs or getting help for an addiction.

The organization was the brainchild of Eileen Richardson, a venture capitalist and CEO of several tech startups. During a sabbatical, Richardson volunteered at the Palo Alto Food Closet and got to know the people there personally. She developed an innovative solution: get parks cleaned by those sleeping in them and then provide the cleaners with services and assistance to help them secure their critical needs.

Spots on the team are highly sought after. Each local team hosts a weekly meeting, during which interested people can be put on that team’s waitlist. To stay on the waitlist, prospective members must continue attending the meetings, which provide a supportive, uplifting space to connect as well as learn about and access services provided by the organization.

“We’re creating community and providing support for the team members, who are cleaning up their communities,” says Rebecca Baer, senior director of community engagement at Downtown Streets Team. “We like to say that it’s a win-win-win model. The team members win, it’s a sense of community for them, but the community wins because they have a clean, vibrant, welcoming community . . . and the environment wins! You can imagine all the trash we keep out of the waterways.” In 2019, Downtown Streets Team picked up two and a half million gallons of trash—quite an accomplishment for one nonprofit.

Since the organization’s founding in 2005, Downtown Streets Team has helped over 2,000 people find jobs or sustainable housing, and in some cases both. To ensure that the numbers are a true reflection of those it’s helped, Downtown Streets Team only considers someone employed after having held the position for at least 90 days. The high rate of success stems from the program’s nature—through volunteer work, team members reintegrate structure into their lives and relearn skills that then benefit them in their new full-time positions.

Baer says many people ask what they can do to help people experiencing homelessness. She recommends finding volunteer opportunities so they can learn stories of people experiencing homelessness. They can also donate to Downtown Streets Team to help expand the services offered in their communities.

The most important thing to do, Baer says, is to treat all people you encounter with dignity and respect. “We encourage people to actually say hi in the same way you would to someone you know, passing on the street. That person is your neighbor, from your community.”

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