On days when he is walking the streets of North Sacramento, leading a crew of men and women who pick up trash and debris in exchange for gift cards, Willie Gilbert remembers a time when he was “part of the problem” in his community.
He was down and out, addicted and aimless. “I was in a shelter, just sitting, sleeping, walking the streets until I could get back to my bed,” said Gilbert, 57, adjusting his Oakland Raiders stocking cap on a recent drizzly afternoon. “I got used to being homeless. I had no direction.”
Today, Gilbert has an apartment, a car, two motorcycles and a purpose. Four days a week, he leads a group of people who are trying to turn their lives around through a program known as the Downtown Streets Team. They use the gift cards they receive as payment for their work to buy groceries, hygiene items and other basics. In addition to beautifying the streets, they also receive help finding jobs, places to live and health care.
“This program changed my life,” said Gilbert, who joined a Streets Team three years ago when he was in San Rafael and had hit rock bottom. He now serves as a crew chief in Sacramento. Downtown Streets Team is a nonprofit organization that began in the Bay Area more than a decade ago and has since expanded to other cities, most recently Sacramento.
The city is contracting with the group to clean up trash from abandoned homeless encampments and keep neighborhoods tidy near its winter "triage" shelter on Railroad Drive near Del Paso Boulevard. Each morning in Sacramento, two crews of approximately a dozen people don bright yellow shirts and spend four hours roaming streets and parkways around the shelter, armed with rakes, shovels, brooms and wheelbarrows.
For each shift, individual crew members receive $20 in gift cards from businesses including Safeway, Walmart and Dollar Tree stores, among others. Or they can forgo the cards and use their “stipends” to cover phone bills and other essentials.
In addition to compensation, they get support from a case manager who helps them achieve individual goals including finding jobs, obtaining housing and signing up for government benefits and health care, said Rachel Davidson, who is managing the Sacramento program.
“We want their recovery to be sustainable,” Davidson said. “This is not just about handing out gift cards.”
Sacramento’s Downtown Streets Team includes people who are homeless, recently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. A few are residents of the triage shelter. Because they are considered volunteers and not employees, they cannot be paid in checks or cash, Davidson said.
But in order to remain in the program, members must comply with typical workplace rules, including arriving at job sites on time, attending weekly meetings and refraining from drinking or using drugs on the job. Their accomplishments are celebrated, and they are "written up" when they violate rules.
The local program has 27 active team members and a waiting list of people who want to join. “We have been over capacity since we launched” in late January, Davidson said. “We've been blown away by the positive response.”
The intense interest, she said, “speaks to the need in the Sacramento area.”
Sacramento’s homeless population has exploded in recent years, according to recent surveys. More than 3,600 people are believed to be without housing in the county on any given day.
The Downtown Streets Team is one way, along with additional police patrols, that the city is working to mitigate the effects of the winter “triage” shelter on surrounding neighborhoods, said city spokeswoman Linda Tucker.
Officials are considering making the controversial shelter, which operates 24 hours and allows homeless people to bring in pets and partners, permanent. They also are mulling opening two other facilities in other parts of the city.
The Railroad Drive shelter, with a capacity of 200 people, originally was scheduled to close at the end of March. Should it remain open, the city likely would renew its contract with the Streets Team, Tucker said. The city pays the team about $25,000 a month.
“We wanted to help this population of people gain meaningful work skills, as well as benefit the community of North Sacramento,” she said. “My sense is that this group is very skilled and committed.”
Few participants have dropped out of the program, Davidson said, and it has had a running waiting list of 10 to 15 people. Local crews are collecting an average of 3,000 gallons of trash every week, she said. “Food wrappers, clothes, tents, all kinds of stuff.”
Robert Febel, who was among the first people to join the Streets Team in January, said the amount of garbage he hauls away during each work shift is “unbelievable.”
Febel, who recently found housing, said he is grateful for the opportunity to get some exercise, interact with residents of North Sacramento and be part of the family atmosphere that the Streets Team offers. Recently, he was named “participant of the week” at one of the group's meetings.
At the “success meetings,” held in the basement of the downtown Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Davidson serves as both cheerleader and taskmaster. She offers “high fives” to team members as they file in and grab cups of hot coffee. Meetings frequently are interrupted by clapping, laughter and fist pumps. They end with lunch and distribution of gift cards.
On a recent day, a team member shared with the group that her homeless son, a former participant in the group, had found a job. Another member said she finally was able to get spay surgery for her dog. Others talked about praise they had received from North Sacramento residents about the work they are doing.
“You bust your butts out there!” Davidson said. “It is noticed. We appreciate you!”
Shannon Renslow, who attended the meeting with her dog Sandy, was all smiles as she celebrated the team's successes. She has housing now, she said, but in darker days lived on the streets.
“I'm here for a reason,” Renslow said. “I used to help dirty up Del Paso Boulevard. Now I want to be part of the solution.”
Willie Gilbert, now a veteran of the team, knows the feeling. “This is a program for people who may be in a predicament or down on their luck, but want to get ahead,” he said. “I pay bills now. I have responsibilities. I feel good about myself. If you want to do that and you are committed to it, it will happen with the help of this program.”