By Dave Schwab
New program gives homeless work, access to programs
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of a mother and her son, the city and Alpha Project partnered to create a pilot program to get homeless people off the street and on their feet by furnishing them with day jobs.
Wheels of Change, the new program currently operating in Downtown San Diego, is based off a similarly successful model in Albuquerque, New Mexico called “There’s a Better Way.”
Wheels of Change is initially rolling out two days a week, with a van driving 10 homeless people to designated areas to pick up trash, pull weeds, clear brush, etc. for five hours. They are compensated after their workday is completed.
Wheels of Change not only gives homeless participants the dignity of work, but also connects them with social services. The program also assists in transitioning homeless to permanent housing.
Co-creators of the new homeless jobs program are Dr. Carolyn Barber, an emergency medicine physician affiliated with UC San Diego Medical Center, and her son, Kevin, a private high school junior.
Kevin Barber talked about how Wheels of Change began.
“My mom and family always talk about homeless issues, and about wanting to do something to help,” he said, noting he saw short videos online about a similar homeless jobs program in New Mexico. “I got really interested when I saw how big an impact it was having on homeless people in Albuquerque.”
So, the Barbers took a New Mexico trip to check out its homeless jobs program. “They were very supportive and wanted to help me bring it to San Diego,” Kevin said. “Then we realized we needed a nonprofit to support us and help run the program.”
Enter Alpha Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit human services organization located Hillcrest, which serves more than 4,000 homeless daily with an array of programs including housing.
Approached by the Barbers about Wheels of Change, Alpha Project Chief Administrative Officer Amy Gonyeau said it was a perfect fit as a “starting point” for homeless self-help. Gonyeau added the new program is a win-win all around.
“It really helps with cleaning the communities, and the other component is it provides peer outreach,” Gonyeau said, noting it affords homeless participants from Alpha Project’s Hillcrest homeless shelter the opportunity to interface with people on the street to explain their shelter experiences, detailing how that’s helped them while encouraging others to follow suit.
The final piece to put Wheels of Change in motion was acquiring the support of local government, which was provided by District 7 Councilmember Scott Sherman. He liked the idea of a program to give the homeless a hand-up.
“It gives the homeless a positive experience to have a job giving them a sense of real worth,” Sherman said. “It’s a way for people who want to work to do that.”
Wheels of Change is a step in the right direction, said the councilman.
“With community buy-in, and the political will, we can help get a large portion of the homeless population off the street,” he said.
Sherman added he was impressed that a 16-year-old boy and his mother were smart, enterprising, and courageous enough to advance such a model homeless jobs program.
Carolyn, who went out recently on the Wheels’ homeless van, was “inspired” by what she saw.
“The homeless we met were motivated, like Cory, who told us, ‘It’s easy to pick up that “I’m homeless” attitude on the streets. This gave me a work ethic. … It makes me feel good and like I’m giving back. … It puts a few bucks in my pocket so I can get clothes, shampoo and shave.’”
Barber also encountered a homeless electrician who lost his job because of hospitalization. “He does not want handouts, or to be on disability, but wants to work,” Carolyn explained.
Barber recounted another story of a homeless former substitute teacher she met “who is now applying to nine different jobs at Home Depot.”
Barber concluded with her most poignant story of all about Susan Graham.
“A week and a half ago she was about to jump off the Coronado Bridge,” Barber said. “A bystander and Alpha Project saved her life. Graham now says she ‘wants to be an example to others.’ Working together as a community — we can change one life at a time.”
Alpha Project’s Gonyeau said Wheels of Change has been so successful thus far that, “We’ve got a list of 150 people signed up on a waiting list to participate.”
In other good news, Councilmember Sherman is working to expand the Wheels of Change pilot program.
“We’re going over the budget to see if we can expand it to five days adding two or three more vans,” he said.
—Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.