San Rafael looks to get the homeless working

Aside from their proximity to one another, San Rafael and San Francisco don’t seem to have a lot in common.

But walk downtown in the sunny, calm town in Marin County and you’ll see that it has one unmistakable commonality with its bustling neighbor to the south: homelessness.

In fact, homelessness in San Rafael has reached a level such that the city is voting today whether to enter a one-year, $272,000 contract with a local nonprofit to put homeless people to work and get them on the path to rebuilding their lives.

When homeless residents participate in Palo Alto-based Downtown Streets Team, they actively contribute to community improvement by working – picking up litter, sweeping, cleaning graffiti and overall ensuring San Rafael stays clean and beautiful.

In a move that has sustainability for future effectiveness, the program provides homeless residents with something beyond the tangibility of money or food: opportunity. By giving participants the chance to work for their community, they instill a sense of responsibility, pride and accomplishment.

About 1,220 homeless people live in Marin County, with nearly half of that population residing in San Rafael, according to the county’s most recent study.

A group of city officials, residents, police and downtown business owners have been trying to come up with strategies to address the concerns surrounding homelessness. Partnering with Downtown Streets Team, which has had considerable success in other Bay Area cities, was a natural choice.

The goal is to have teams of 12 people at a time working about 20 hours per week. People who participate in the program will receive gift cards – typically around $100 per week –for clothing, food and other essentials.

Beyond securing basic needs and getting into a work routine, the program aims to get participants on a meaningful path to independence and security.

After proving commitment to the program by working and attending weekly meetings, participants will work with case managers to continue moving forward with their lives – writing resumes, securing housing, connecting with psychiatric care.

In turn, participants who continue on the program for a year can assume leadership positions themselves and help others.