“Will Work For Food,” read the sign held by a disheveled man of about 50 years of age wearing a dirt stained pair of blue jeans and a frayed baseball cap standing at an intersection in Mission Valley. The four simple words written in black sharpie on a piece of cardboard tell a more complex story about a city’s failure. Panhandling is the only source of income for many of San Diego’s homeless population of more than 8,500. If you’ve spent any time at all in this city you’ve undoubtedly seen people displaying similar messages at traffic stop lights, busy intersections or street corners. Perhaps you’ve even thought to yourself “I hope someone offers him some work.” Unfortunately, usually no one does; but it doesn’t have to be that way. We must act directly to provide a viable employment opportunity to San Diego’s homeless population.
The city of San Diego should provide a daytime work program for homeless people that provides a crucial pathway towards finding permanent housing. The World’s Finest City has thousands of homeless people without access to adequate employment, housing and medical services. A small-scale daytime work program for panhandlers and homeless individuals could help take people off the streets and provide economic and social opportunity to some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
Part of the value of a daytime work program for the homeless is in its simplicity. The city would provide a driver and a large van that would drive around to various locations frequented by panhandlers and homeless encampments. Any individual seeking to work for a five or six-hour day would be invited to work and picked up until the van is full. The team would then spend the day working on basic city beautification projects such as picking up trash and removing overgrowth near freeway exits, and doing beach cleanups. Workers would receive minimum wage or slightly above and be paid in cash at the end of the day.
Many of San Diego’s freeway exits have become impromptu dumping sites and are in serious need of attention. The trash and overgrowth buildup is not merely a blight on the city, it is also an increased fire hazard during this historic drought. Additionally, several of San Diego’s most popular beaches are littered with millions of pieces of plastic and other garbage that harms wildlife. For a city that is in many ways dependent on tourism, protecting our environment should be a top priority. This program gives homeless panhandlers the opportunity to work a full day improving the environment, doing something they can take pride in and that the city desperately needs.
This program also presents the additional opportunity for San Diego to directly help feed its homeless population efficiently by providing lunch as part of the work day benefits. The city could provide the driver of the van with pre-prepared nutritious lunches for the workforce to simultaneously combat the issue of malnutrition that is statistically common among the homeless population. Nutritionists from the Department of Health and Human Services could be contacted or even employed to recommend and organize general meal content that meets the basic nutritional needs of those living on the streets.
These programs would provide homeless individuals with much needed disposable income to purchase food and other living essentials. A survey of homeless conducted in San Francisco provides valuable insight into the typical daily expenditures of homeless panhandlers living in urban areas. The survey found that 94 percent of panhandlers reported spending the money they collected on food. This program could help directly feed the homeless both through the lunch provided during the workday and through the cash workers would receive at the end of the work day.
Participants in the daytime work program could also be put into contact with critical services that already exist and are available for homeless people in San Diego, but are often under-utilized due to lack of awareness. The homeless daytime workers could be provided with information about local shelters, goodwill programs, medical and mental health services and rehabilitation centers in which to seek help from drug or alcohol addiction. Additional assistance could be given through putting workers into contact with the Women Infants and Children program, CalFresh (food stamps) and the Veterans Administration. There is clear value to an employment program that has the dual function of a point-of-entry to other services for San Diego’s homeless.
Such a program is not some far-fetched liberal fantasy. In fact, similar programs have already been enacted in cities across the country, with inspiring results for both the individuals that participate and the communities that support them. Albuquerque, New Mexico has earned national attention for its comprehensive daytime work program for the homeless, and perhaps more importantly, for its success in linking up individuals in need with other programs that can assist them in that city. In less than a year, the Albuquerque program, the brainchild of the city’s Republican Mayor Richard Berry, has provided 932 day jobs to individuals removing nearly 70,000 pounds of trash and overgrowth brush from nearly 200 city blocks. Perhaps most importantly it has connected over 100 people to permanent employment. These figures prove the merit of this program and provide a glimpse of what a duplicate program in San Diego could achieve.
If a city with far less resources than San Diego can do so much for its homeless population, we can do the same here, potentially with even greater effect. Having local government provide the homeless and panhandlers with a simple and consistent employment opportunity is not only the morally sound thing to do, it’s is also economical. A study by the University of North Carolina found that cities spend more on incarceration and emergency medical treatment of homeless than the cost of providing housing and preventative healthcare. While this daytime work program will not be a cure all for the vast set of challenges the city faces with its homeless population, it would help to fill a critical void left by San Diego’s existing homeless outreach efforts. This program, operating in conjunction with the myriad of homeless outreach programs already in place would send a powerful message that our community is committed to helping our most vulnerable members.