Written by The Business Journal Staff
Councilman Bob Link said most complaints he hears from residents are about trash and the city’s homeless problem, “and this addresses both.”
“I feel like we’ve got a winner here,” Mayor Warren Gubler said before he and his four fellow council members voted unanimously to approve Visalia’s Homeless Work Program.
But that approval is tentative because Visalia is putting up only $105,000 from its Solid Waste Fund to pay for the program that has a total first year estimated cost of $354,000.
The remaining $209,000 would come a grant provided by the Workforce Investment Board of Tulare County.
But city officials seem confident that will happen, as the agency has offered similar support to programs to put parolees and Tulare County jail inmates to work.
Under the city program, four work crews, each comprised of five homeless people and a part-time crew supervisor, would work 20 hours a week picking up trash along streets, alleys, waterways and other places.
Their employment would last 90 days each, allowing them to gain work experience and referrals that can help them land permanent jobs.
In addition, WIB will provide the participants coaching in applying for jobs and getting through interviews, as well as help with grooming and getting proper clothing in which to be interviewed, city officials told the Visalia City Council members.
And over the course of the year, a dozen of the participants who do particularly well will be asked to sign on for additional three-month stints working in the Visalia Solid Waste Division, where they’ll each essentially shadow one employee for guidance that could lead to their getting jobs in the department or further experience to put on their resumes, said Earl Nielsen, the city’s public works manager.
The program is being patterned on a similar program launched by the city of Bakersfield to clean up trash on freeways running through the city.
In that case, the program started with funding from the California Department of Transportation, which contracted with Bakersfield to provide homeless workers for freeway cleanup after the city opted to expand a program already in place to hire homeless people to separate recyclables from trash, Sal R. Moretti, solid waste superintendent for Bakersfield, told the Visalia councilmen before Monday afternoon’s vote.
He was invited to tell the council about the Bakersfield program, which he said has been such a great success that he has given a similar presentation at Harvard University.
“We were desperate to find a solution” to the litter problem on Bakersfield’s freeways, and heavy criticism by the public and news reports prompted action by the city council there to think outside the box and take action, Moretti said.
The Bakersfield program has expanded from freeways to cleaning up alleys and city streets, and it now is bigger, with a $1.3 million budget paid largely by Caltrans and private-sector sponsors that include Pacific Gas and Electric Co., with the city of Bakersfield paying only about $80,000 of the tab.
Visalia city officials are in discussions with Caltrans to possibly contract to have the homeless workers remove trash from the portion of Highway 198 that runs through the city, but no agreement has yet been reached.
One key factor to the Visalia program will be the process of selecting candidates.
As for the costs, Visalia Councilman Phil Cox noted that less then half of the $354,000 will go to the workers, as the rest will go to paying the salaries of the crew supervisors — an estimated $50,000 the first year — as well as the cost of a van, fuel, equipment, insurance and administrative costs.
Nielsen noted that the portion the city pays will come out of funds already set aside for cleanup projects, including dollars that normally would go to Able Industries, Inc., which provides jobs for mentally- and physically-disabled adults.
He said Able Industries will continue to have a contract with the city to do cleanup work, and the homeless program will cut into only a small portion of those hours.
For her part, Wendy Ayers, executive director for Able Industries, indicated she was unconcerned about the city’s new program affecting work for her clients.
“We do a lot of work for the city, and there is a lot of [additional] work that could be done,” she said noting that her workers use a lot of equipment and tools for cleanup and landscaping, while it appears the Homeless Work Program will involve projects that require just a labor force without much equipment.
Moretti said many of the people in the Bakersfield program have drug and mental-health problems, as well as arrests for criminal activities, which largely are the reasons many can’t get jobs and are homeless.
After Visalia Councilman Steve Nelsen asked what liability the city might have if some of these issues manifest among crew members at cleanup sites, WIB’s executive director, Adam Peck, responded that “Not every homeless person is right for this.”
Everyone chosen for the program will undergo a drug screening and a background check to assess if they have issues that would make them unsuitable to do this sort of work.
“If the city wishes to assist homeless individuals obtain work, the first step is for the homeless individual to become stable enough to meet the basic work requirements,” states a report to the City Council outlining the proposal.
“Therefore, it is important for the city to work with other community partners to stabilize formerly homeless individuals in order for them to be ready to pass a drug test and have required identification information,” it continues. “Staff is working with community groups, such as Visalia Rescue Mission, on how they might identify individuals that are ready and prepared to work.”