By Tia Will
Sometimes life converges in ways we do not expect. This happened to me over the course of the past week. I had three experiences which led me to the fourth which I will describe in more detail later. First, a little background.
1. Last week, I reviewed the city survey regarding opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of downtown along with suggestions for improvement. I was struck by the number of comments suggesting/demanding the removal of the homeless from downtown, by the paucity of suggestions for how to accomplish this, and the complete absence of ideas regarding how they might be helped to improve their circumstances.
2. On Sunday I attended the Community Meals fundraiser which serves as a fun way to see friends & eat a good meal while raising funds for a worthy community service. This year’s event was marked by an address from the mayor. Robb Davis highlighted the community spirit of those in attendance and the positive contributions made by the group. He went on to address the issue of homelessness in our community and the inadequacy of the efforts to date to address this issue. One point particularly resonated with me. This was the role of individual relationship building in addressing the needs of the homeless.
3. Then, while walking through downtown a couple of days ago, I witnessed an encounter between one of our bicycle police officers and a man inhabiting a large portion of the sidewalk . I heard a brief portion of the conversation. It was apparent this was not a unique conversation but one they had had on a number of occasions. It seemed singularly unsatisfactory for both & ended with the officer riding off and the man resuming his previous position.
By then, life seemed to be telling me that there was something here I should be paying attention to, which brings me to the fourth event. On Wednesday, I attended the brown bag lunch at River City Bank. The discussion was led by Michael Bisch, Bill Habitch, Bill Pride, and Martha Teeter. There were about 10 other businessmen and community members in attendance.
Unbeknownst to me, for the past year this group, along with a number of others, has been working on a project called Pathways to Employment. This is a program to address the issues of homelessness in a way that builds relationships and opportunities for the homeless in our community. It is based in part on the belief that they are members of our community just as are the business owners, the workers, the students and the retired. They have a right to live in our community and that many, given the opportunity, will have the ability to be contributing members of it.
This project is a collaborative effort between the City of Davis, Yolo County, Davis Community Church and other members of the faith community, Davis Community Meals, Davis Opportunity Village, Sutter Health, the Davis Downtown Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce….and probably others I am forgetting.
The project is currently in the first six weeks of what is envisioned to involve three levels of engagement. The first phase involves downtown beautification. Individuals who are currently in transitional programs who are interested in participating are identified to participate in a part-time jobs program. They are given clean up/ beautification jobs beginning at 4-5 hours weekly with a wage of $12/hr. When the individual has demonstrated the reliability, knowledge, and skills to function at this level, they can progress to levels 2 and 3 with progressive skills development advancing to a mentoring and potentially supervisory role for those at lower levels in the program. The goals include development of a skill set and patterns of behavior that will allow them to find employment & integrate into the larger community.
The challenges for the individual remain large. This program as currently envisioned does not provide housing. It does not provide a wage sufficient for independence. At the present time it does not entail advanced skills training. However, it is built upon community strengths. Davis is a community with many involved citizens and charitable groups. We have strong outreach to the homeless themselves from multiple groups including our shelters, transitional programs, our faith community, and our police.
There are also challenges at the community level. There has been a lack of robust engagement of the broader citizenry in this project. Needs include increased awareness and willingness to participate in hiring graduates of this program once that point is reached. One suggestion was that businesses could collaborate in offering to provide employment for which specific skill sets could be taught prior to program completion. Funding will be another ongoing need. Grants and matching funds are an existing source. One innovative approach is donation “parking meters” downtown which could serve as alternative means of benefiting panhandlers rather than simply handing them cash, with proceeds providing an ongoing source of program revenue.
Group discussion at the lunch addressed the diversity of the homeless population, including transients passing through, students, and individuals with addiction and mental health issues with varying needs, depending on individual circumstances. Also briefly explored were housing options for participants and graduates of the program and additional funding streams. A last item was how best to publicize this project with multiple strategies discussed. This was my introduction to the program, and this piece is a first effort to introduce it to a wider audience. I left the meeting with a mind full of ideas and a more positive attitude knowing that there are like-minded individuals working on this intransigent problem in a creative, collaborative fashion.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.