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SF homeless team up to keep streets clean

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Downtown Streets Team member Sharon Randle, left, leads other members through Union Square while cleaning the streets on Thursday, Sept. 15. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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They’ve come from Georgia, Texas and right here in the Fillmore. They’ve faced drug addiction, bad luck, lost housing and unemployment. They sleep on the streets, in alleys, in shelters and at friends’ homes, sometimes on the floor.

These San Francisco residents were participating Thursday morning in the Downtown Streets Team, a program that organizes homeless people to pick up cigarette butts and other litter on the very streets they seek refuge from.

The new service has emerged as The City has failed to decrease the overall number of homeless people living on the street. Attention to the issue has also intensified as business owners and residents complain about a proliferation of homeless encampments near them.

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The Downtown Streets Team is certainly far from a cure-all, but the novel approach is drawing wide praise from the police, city officials, business interests and the participants themselves.

The program was created in Palo Alto in 2005 by Napster’s first CEO and venture capitalist Eileen Richardson, who took a break from the tech world and began volunteering at Food Closet before coming up with the idea.

“We are a gateway to the many awesome services that are often in a city already, especially this city,” Richardson said Thursday. “You see these men and women here working so hard. All they wanted was a second or a seventh chance. And now they’ve got it.”

John Bryner, 50, told the San Francisco Examiner that he joined the streets team to get in shape and secure a job.

“I’ve been out of work, so I‘m trying to build up my strengths so that I’m employable,” Bryner said. “My goal is to become employed part-time, and I am making sure that I am strong enough to do the job. This is helping me get ready for it. It’s like getting paid to go to the gym.”

With the help of donations from local tech companies Dolby and Google, the Downtown Streets Team earlier this year began operations in the Civic Center area. A team of 20 people, donning unmistakable bright yellow T-shirts, typically clean the streets from 8 a.m. to noon. Team members must be 18 years old to participate and attend a weekly meeting.

There, they put their name on wait list that, due to demand, can take weeks to actually land a spot on the team for work. If a member doesn’t show up, he or she is removed from the list.

Once part of the team, a job specialist and a case manager help advance the participant toward employment and housing. Participants receive a weekly stipend of about $100 for their 20 hours of volunteer work per week in the form of vouchers for stores like Safeway and Target.

In about five months, 16 participants found employment, two secured housing and more than 132,000 gallons of debris and 5,500 used needles were cleared from the streets, a program official said.

Downtown Streets Team is operating in 10 cities across the country, has a budget of $6 million and a staff of 50 that has helped more than 1,050 find jobs or housing, according to Richardson.

On Thursday, the team officially launched a partnership with the Union Square Business Improvement District, funded by assessments on properties in the area, in which a four-person team — they wear red shirts in Union Square — cleans from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and in the afternoon from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Wes Tyler, general manager of the Chancellor Hotel in Union Square, said in the past 24 years he has constantly had guests remark on the number of homeless people on the street. But with the visibility of the program, he said he can now tell them what The City is doing to address it and even suggest they could “contribute if they would like to.”

“I hope when everyone sees the Downtown Streets members, they go up to them and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Tyler added.

The Union Square BID’s Block by Block service has committed to hiring from the program. Those who are hired — three to date — will do much of the same work, but for full-time pay of $15 per hour.

“It really is an example of when we get it right,” said Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu, who attended the Thursday’s event on Maiden Lane in Union Square. Chu added that the business and community organization partnership is “how we should be thinking about solving some of our biggest challenges in our city.”

Public Works Deputy Director Larry Stringer, who oversees street cleaning, praised the program for pitching in on a problem The City can’t solve on its own. He noted San Francisco has more than 30,000 street cleaning requests per year.

“Since they’ve been in Civic Center, there is a noticeable difference in the cleanliness of The City,” Stringer said. “I am looking for Downtown Streets Team to move to a few more places.”

And that may happen.

Brandon Davis, the Downtown Streets Team project manager in San Francisco, said the group is considering other neighborhoods such as the Castro and West SoMa, but noted it would take more funding.

In a city where tempers and politics run high over the issue of homelessness, Downtown Streets Team goes a long way in dispelling some myths.

“Our wait list alone is a huge middle finger to people who think that homeless folks are lazy and don’t want to contribute to their own success,” Davis said. “We have the most demand out of all of our branches here in San Francisco and the greatest attendance of any of our branches. It’s a true testament to the fact that people need an outlet to suit their needs.”

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