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A hand up for the homeless

Downtown Streets Team works to curb panhandling and promote responsibility

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On an average day on University Avenue, amongst the businesspeople rushing by, shoppers strolling and teenagers hanging out in Lytton Plaza, workers in brightly colored T-shirts patrol the street with brooms and dustpans, leaving cleanliness in their wake. The shirts, reading Downtown Streets Team in large block letters, indicate that those who wear them are associated with the organization dedicated to ending panhandling in Palo Alto.

The Downtown Streets Team was created in 2005 in response to a study done by the Business Improvement District showing that the two biggest problems facing local businesses were panhandling and street cleanliness. To knock out two problems with one punch, the nonprofit strives to prepare homeless team members to find permanent jobs through its mentor programs and by providing temporary street-cleaning jobs.

During their time on the team, employees keep downtown looking tidy while learning the values of punctuality, responsibility and sobriety, Program Manager Chris Richardson said.

Team member Norman Williams credits the Streets Team for his current quality of life. Sentenced to 25 years to life in Folsom Prison on a third-strike charge when he was caught taking a floor jack from the back of a tow truck, Williams was released after 13 years in prison after Stanford lawyers took up his cause.

He entered into the Streets Team program.

"I was set out with nothing," Williams said. "There's no telling where I would be without the Downtown Streets Team."

To date, the Streets Team has helped more than 150 people find jobs and housing. According to Richardson, there are plans to further housing programs by opening a transitional-housing facility, which would give up to 24 people a place to live while going through the program (which can be for up to one year). Through work in the street-cleaning program, team members can also earn up to $100 in food vouchers per week.

The Streets Team will be able to launch more outreach programs thanks to the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund grant of $15,000. In its latest project, Streets Team members will clean city garages and reach out to anyone found sleeping in the garages.

"When it's one of our guys telling them not to sleep there anymore they are hearing it from a peer," said Eileen Richardson, Streets Team executive director.

"Many don't trust in programs, but when they see their former peers doing so well it shows that they can do it too," she said.

According to Chris Richardson, an important step of helping a person to overcome homelessness is a change of social circle. Homeless residents form a tight community, which often leads to complacency and an acceptance for street living. To change bad habits, the Streets Team introduces its participants to a new group of people and a new outlook on life. The program encourages self-sufficiency and motivates people to enrich their lives.

"It's a battle with each person," he said. "We've worked hard for a small organization."

The Streets Team is currently working in collaboration with Stanford's Students Taking on Poverty (STOP) and professional law firm Thoits, Love, Hershberger and McLean to provide a support system for team members. With these groups, the program offers monthly meetings, mentor relationships and information on applying for jobs. The program also helps expunge non-relevant criminal charges by working with the courts.

This year, the Streets Team was awarded the 2010 Tall Tree Award for outstanding nonprofit in Palo Alto.

In celebration of National Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week, the Downtown Streets Team hosted a booth in Lytton Plaza this week to create support, solicit advocates for the cause and bring in volunteers.

"It changes the opinion of the community about homelessness," Eileen Richardson said of the team.

"People look at the homeless like 'Get a job, bum'. This program shows people will work their tails off to support themselves," she said.

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