Homeless help clean up streets in exchange for path to housing

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Cleaning up trash is not glamorous, but for a San Jose clean-up crew it’s the most important four hours they’ll spend all week.  

“There’s just an energy here and there’s an energy every morning we meet, and everyone knows everyone. And it’s real,” said Downtown Street Member David Lundholm.  

San Jose is one of 13 Bay Area cities where the non-profit Downtown Streets is taking the homeless and putting them to work. It’s simple - take pride in a day of work and in return the DST staff will provide a path to housing, jobs, and a community environment that rebuilds self-esteem.  

The numbers are telling. Nearly 2,000 of its members are now off the streets.  

CEO Eileen Richardson says it’s all about support. “It’s much more about being family... a community and that’s what you lose when you are in the isolation of homelessness on the streets. So we bring that to you so now you’re resilient.”  

Downtown Streets CEO Eileen Richardson use to be the CEO of Napster.  

Thirteen years ago she left the hubbub of the tech world to give back.  DST now employees 65 people with a budget of $8 million and last year alone her workers in San Francisco cleaned up nearly 25 tons of trash.  

"What we've done is rolled up our sleeves with the men and women themselves. I was out sweeping the streets myself in the early days... and then found out what works. You do more of that, and what doesn’t work you do less of that,” said Richardson.  

Each week is celebrated with a “success meeting” and a warm meal and afterwards store gift cards are handed out for work well done.  

It’s a cross between a labor hall and church revival where downtown streeters get a chance to say Thank you. “Thank you for my beautiful apartment! I love you all.”  

One by one they stepped up to a microphone in a church auditorium filled with over 100 workers.  “I wasn’t going to say anything until it was finally final. But, I got a job!”  His joy was celebrated by applause.  

Next up David Lundholm an alcoholic for 38 years, says the program has saved him. “They know me. I know them. I can’t start my day without this place. Without my sponsors and my meetings. And look at me!  I’m on fire man. I am man! I love life now. What more can I say.”  

Fifty-five-year-old Zack Anderson is a believer too. He was abused as a child and a teen and a drug addict for over 30 years. He says DST has restored his faith. "So I've never been in charge of anyone in my life including myself. They teach you things, but they make you earn it. And they'll never give up on you. That's the great thing. Never give up on you,” said Anderson.  

He now has his own apartment for the first time in two-plus years.  

Richardson said it’s all about never giving up. "Life is about working hard and achieving, working hard and achieving, working hard and achieving.  And that's what we do here.”  

The city of San Jose is so impressed with the program they are expanding the program and that will include some full-time jobs to some of the DST workers.  

Modesto is the latest city to be introduced to Downtown Streets and in the next 6 months a number of other cities will come on board.  

There are 26,000 homeless people in California. That’s roughly the population of the city of Benicia.

It’s a huge problem facing our state, and programs like Downtown Streets are making a big difference.