The Palo Alto Downtown Streets Team, which employs homeless persons and provides group support, is a semifinalist in the annual "Innovations in American Government Award" by the Ash Institute at Harvard University.
The program has been selected as one of the "Top 50 Government Innovations" from more than 600 city, county, state, federal and tribal government applicants, a news release by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard stated.
The 16 finalists will be announced May 18. In mid-September, six of those programs will be awarded up to $100,000 in grants.
The awards recognize creativity and excellence in the public sector, the news release stated.
Founded in May 2005, the nonprofit streets team was created to address cleanliness and homelessness in downtown Palo Alto. Eileen Richardson, its only full-time employee, currently runs the program as its director.
Homeless men and women voluntarily join the team and work under janitorial contracts in exchange for housing and food vouchers. Members take on increasing responsibilities, help manage the program and eventually go on to find full-time employment and housing.
Janitorial contracts for the program include work for the City of Palo Alto to clean local soccer fields and downtown streets, local business buildings and other nonprofits, such as InnVision, which runs the Opportunity Center.
The program first started with four members and one janitorial contract. Today, the program has 16 contracts, 30 members and an annual budget that has doubled each year, Richardson said.
"We're about to celebrate our 100th person who found a job or housing or both through us," she said.
The success of the small and unique program is what Richardson believes, to her surprise, led Harvard to approach her about applying for the national award.
Prior to the Harvard award announcement the streets team had already created an impact through sister programs in cities nationwide: Daytona Beach, Fla., started a program in February; Atlanta, Ga., and San Jose are also rolling out programs inspired by the streets team; and three other cities have expressed interest in starting a similar program.
"What we do that is so different is that we help people rebuild their confidence and dignity," she said. That factor, in addition to the Streets Team's democratic and voluntarily participation, results in members striving to "graduate," she said.
Among the semifinalist are six other California programs, including the state-level Global Warming Solutions Act.
Ultimately, Richardson hopes the national recognition will help the Streets Team acquire further funding and growth.
Her future plans for the nonprofit include acquiring janitorial contracts with higher profile companies and developing a mentorship program with local businesses to help participants acquire stronger job skills.
"We try to turn panhandlers into tax-payers," Richardson said. "When you give folks a chance they can really do great things."