Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 19, 2007

A crash-course in life skills

Downtown Streets Team: cleaning streets, rebuilding lives

by Alex Papoulias

After a stroke left him wheelchair-bound, George Tyson made his living panhandling around Whole Foods Market in Palo Alto. But his life changed dramatically the day he met a volunteer with the Downtown Streets Team who encouraged Tyson to start attending the group's Thursday meetings.

Begun in 2005 by the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, Downtown Streets Team (DST) has grown from four team members in 2005 to 18 in 2007. The idea behind DST was to address several of the city's needs through one program, decreasing the number of panhandlers on downtown streets by offering them work in exchange for food and housing.

Tyson's disability meant walking the streets with a broom and a dustpan was unlikely, but that was no deterrent for DST.

"They had me working in the kitchen at a shelter. Serving meals to homeless folks. It kept me busy and I liked that," Tyson said with a proud smile.

He originally planned on being with the team for a year, but Tyson stayed on an additional 6 months.

"They're helping a lot of people get off the streets, and get off panhandling for making a living."

These days Tyson works five days a week at a jewelry shop on Broadway in Redwood City. No more panhandling, and no more wheelchair.

"I've worked for the store owner off and on for a while. I get around a lot better now, and he took me on for a permanent job. He's a good guy — he bought me presents to give to my kids.

"But now I can buy presents for my kids," Tyson said.

Tyson's turnaround is exactly the kind of success the team is striving for with its clients.

"We're trying to teach our members self-confidence and self-reliance. Not to just give them a handout, but to teach them how to help themselves — to teach them that they can help themselves," said Eileen Richardson, president of the Downtown Streets Team.

The nonprofit received a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday fund this year. The fund distributed $260,000 to 38 community organizations in 2007 and has given more than $3 million to local nonprofits since its inception in 1993.

For DST members, the work itself, in combination with the services provided by the team, are meant to teach professional and life skills, encouraging them to reenter the work-force and move toward independence. In turn, the city streets are cleaned and maintained regularly, an effort which has earned the praise of many business owners and citizens.

Three essential principles guide DST's approach to helping its team members. The first, "eligibility," requires that new team members be unhoused or living in subsidized housing. The second, "commitment," requires team members to attend weekly meetings. The third principle, "consistency," is encouraged through the rule that if a team member misses a meeting, he or she is required to start the program over from the beginning.

According to Richardson, it's a formula for success that appears to be working.

"We had 12 new people at our Thursday meeting and barely enough room to fit them all. One thing I'm not really concerned with right now is community outreach. The word is out about the Downtown Streets Team," she said.

The Streets Team's weekly meetings are often emotional events where members receive congratulations and encouragement for their efforts.

"The meetings are really inspirational. I mean, you've got a 53-year-old guy who's been on the streets, and he's just finished his first week of real employment in 20 years. In front of a group of 30 or more team members, he's getting a hug and a round of applause for the good job he's done. The look of pride on his face is enough to bring you to tears," Richardson said.

"That look, and the moment they realize 'I can do this', are what make it all worthwhile."

As of Dec. 17, community members have donated $87,088 to the Weekly's Holiday Fund. Funds are matched by grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Arrillaga and Peery foundations, doubling each contribution, and bringing this year's total so far to $174,176. The Holiday Fund is part of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Editorial Intern Alex Papoulias can be e-mailed at apapoulias@paweekly.com

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