Every weekday morning, a group of people in yellow shirts gathers on Market to clean up streets in dire need of attention. While many people blame the city’s homeless population for the littered sidewalks, the people in the yellow shirts live on the streets themselves — and they’re working their way back from the margins.
In the past two years, these crews in bright-colored shirts have cleaned up more than 580,000 pounds of debris and 29,000 needles from places like Union Square, the Mission, and Civic Center, as part of the Downtown Streets Team (DST). Workers show up each day for four hours, receive a gift card they can use on basic needs, then work with a case manager to connect with housing or permanent jobs.
“There are no paths directly from the streets into workforce development,” says Brandon Davis, DST San Francisco project director. “Our goal isn’t just to provide social services — it’s to legitimately change the face of homelessness and dispel the myths around them.”
After years of supporting itself through grants, the organization received a big endorsement that may affect its operations in the long term. Last week, the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties’ Joint Homelessness Task Force recognized the Downtown Streets Team as a “best practice” for its effective support of people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s really a game-changer for us,” says Chris Richardson, DST chief program officer and son of founder Eileen Richardson. “Because what we do is so unique and it’s a new concept to address homelessness, people had to take a leap of faith with us.”
The endorsement could mean more city contracts or grants, which Davis says they’ve received offers for. But they’ve also turned some down to ensure that they grow at a healthy pace by sticking to workforce development among people 18 or older.
DST operates in six Northern California cities and counties, and launched its San Francisco chapter about two years ago with the help of a $500,000 grant from Google. Since then, the city chapter has expanded from 15 to 60 workforce development slots, which Davis stresses are intended to be transitional. At least 15 people have found full-time work with a partnering contractor, while 32 have been placed into supportive housing.
While other groups focus on finding much-needed housing for those living on the streets, DTS re-integrates people into the workforce in a visible way. More importantly, it gives people often ignored by society a sense of purpose and a goal to work toward. According to DST data, 68 percent have reported fewer interactions with the police.
Take it from someone who’s been through the ranks. Darryl Cage started as a yellow shirt more than a year ago. Today, he is still out there, but in a purple shirt, which means he oversees the teams and provides support.
Cage attests to the DST model, which he says works because regular interactions with other people begin with a casual conversation by people who have been in the same boat. His motivation is reaching out to people who have been forgotten and getting them to regularly show up to work so they can achieve their piece of the American Dream.
“It’s not how you start the race sometimes, it’s how you finish it,” Cage says. “This is a beautiful thing to see.”
DST sought to open-source the model for other organizations before being officially named a best practice but struggled to comfortably replicate it, Richardson says. Now that they operate in multiple cities, they know the details need to be tailored to each community.
By next year, they hope to roll out a model of peer-to-peer outreach and workforce development that affiliates could take on around the state, in places like Eureka and West Oakland.
“We don’t see ourselves as the be-all-end-all of homeless services,” Richardson says. “We’re trying to turn Downtown Streets Team into a movement, not just a charity.”
DST spent time cleaning near the city’s navigation center at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. shortly after it launched last June, which Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing spokesperson Randy Quezada says was helpful for once-skeptical neighbors.
“This type of partnership is important, and we’re exploring ways to expand these types of offerings,” Quezada says.
Navigation centers proved themselves to be a constructive model for homelessness before city leaders scrambled to open more. DST knows they have something to be carefully replicated, too.
“Just like you had Uber first, then you had Lyft? It’s coming,” Cage says. “Mark my words.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj