Working on the homeless
By Reggie Ellis
visalia – Robert Valencia started his first day of steady work in more than a decade on Monday, but more importantly, the milestone represented the first day of working toward a new life. Valencia was among three people selected to kick off the City of Visalia’s new program to pay homeless people to pick up trash within the city limits.
“I am thankful and grateful for the opportunity and to be at the start of an opportunity for others like me,” Valencia said.
Valencia came to Visalia from San Jose in 1993 with the intention of helping take care of his grandfather. He said he grew up in a home with an alcoholic father and he quickly spiraled out of control. He said he lost his job, home and identity to alcohol and eventually wound up in and out of friends home and on and off the streets of Visalia.
“I had trouble with alcohol,” said the 57-year-old. “It was the way I grew up and I didn’t know anything else. They used to give people a slap on the wrist but now it is more serious, which is good.”
A little more than two years ago, Valencia hit bottom and decided it was time to make a change. He made his way to the Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM), where he was given food, shelter and clean clothes as long as he was willing to follow VRM’s Life Change Academy, a Christ-centered program focusing on improving the mental, physical and spiritual health of men and women struggling with life issues and chemical dependencies. After graduating from the one-year residential program, VRM helped find Valencia transitional housing offered to those who had been homeless. Three months ago, he heard about the city’s new program to pay homeless people to pick up trash and a pathway for more training and higher paying jobs.
“Everyone has to pay rent and I want to be able to pay rent,” Valencia said. “They didn’t come to me, I went to them. I want the same opportunities that other people have. Now I have a plan for success.”
Formerly known as the Homeless Work Program, Mayor Warren Gubler announced the launch of the renamed Environmental Cleanup Opportunities (ECO) project during a July 31 press conference in a city-owned parking lot just west of Burke Road on Mineral King Avenue, where the ECO crews started picking up trash at 7:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. on their first day on the job. Gubler said people like Valencia who actively seek out help and are making an effort to try and better themselves are perfect candidates for the jobs.
“They are going to help the city by cleaning up the city, making it sparkle and taking pride in our city,” Gubler said. “In turn, this will help these individuals develop some self reliance, build a resume and a life.”
Gubler went on to introduce the other key players in the partnership including the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) of Tulare County and ABLE Industries. Executive Director Adam Peck said WIB is splitting the cost of paying wages to those transitioning off the streets with the City.
Peck quoted author, historian and radio host Studs Terkel who said, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” Peck added that it would be difficult to establish “a program with any more meaning” than the ECO crews.
WIB is also overseeing a contract for work crew supervision being provided by ABLE Industries, a non-profit that typically offers employment services to adults with disabilities. Wende-Leigh Ayers, executive director of ABLE Industries, said Valencia is joined by Jesse Guerrero, 37, and Mike Zimmerman, 65, on the inaugural crew. Four more workers are expected to be added to the crew next week and the remaining three spots will be filled as candidates are identified and placed into the program. The goal is to have 10 workers in one crew and then add another crew as more people are signed up.
“I am excited to be a part of this great collaboration,” Ayers said. “This will expand on the work with people with disabilities that we already do.”
The work crew is supervised by Wes Howard. After two years of working for ABLE Industries, Howard said he volunteered to lead the homeless transition work crews because he liked the idea of the project. “It’s a great opportunity to get themselves off the streets and employed again.”
Howard said the crews cleaned up Mineral King Avenue from McAuliff to Burke that morning and planned to continuing cleaning the frontage road heading west to Plaza Drive. The crews will then turn their attention to Noble and work back east across the city. Once those two main roads are complete, Howard said they begin responding to specific areas identified by the city.
“They came ready to work and we had a pretty good pace today,” Howard said. “They did a great job and we should be able to make some ground on cleaning up the city.”
Ayers said the work done by the ECO crews will not take away opportunities from Able’s existing crews for people with disabilities. In addition to picking up roadside refuse, Ayers said Able Industries’ work crews also handle trash pick up in alleyways, parking lots, parking structures, as well as at every city park, walking and bicycle trails, and creek beds.
“There is more than enough work to go around and I think these programs will really complement one another,” Ayers said.
ECO was approved by the City Council in March as part of a three-pronged approach to reducing homelessness in Visalia. The program is funded with $352,000 split between the City and the WIB’s Employment Connection, which is contracting with ABLE Industries to oversee the work crew. After the initial 12-week session is complete, Employment Connection will recommend some of the former homeless for placement with a part-time job in the City’s solid waste department while the others will continue to receive job readiness training through Employment Connection.
Those selected for the second level of the program would be trained to assemble solid waste carts and clear ditches and waterways of debris for up to six months in the solid waste up to six months in the solid waste department. These positions are already included in the city budget and are jobs the City has a hard time filling.
Workers who continue to progress will move into a part-time position with the City. They would be paired with a full-time solid waste employee to deliver solid waste containers to properties, tag waste cans where residents have mixed recyclables with refuse as well as assembling, repairing, cleaning and painting residential trash bins. At this level, they may also be allowed learn to weld, a skill set in high demand with an insufficient number of people entering the field nationwide.