Opinion: It’s time for a homeless day labor program in Berkeley

A simple civic day employment program for those experiencing homelessness can increase a sense of self-worth, help build resiliency, and bring in a little cash.

A variety of cities across the United States have built inclusive civic day labor programs aimed at the unhoused. I submit that it’s time for Berkeley to join in. While the unhoused in Berkeley can access free meals three times a day seven days a week, there’s something missing. Many of these people are unemployed, and to most employers unemployable. A voluntary civic day labor program can put them on the path to finding meaningful employment.

The key to the successful civic day employment programs is their simplicity. No paperwork and no process. The programs work much like picking up a day laborer on the street — no ID check, no background check, no commitment beyond the day’s work, all sums paid in cash. The programs typically drop the worker not back to the street, but to a homeless resource center.

A widely celebrated program in Albuquerque, New Mexico involves a city-owned ten-passenger van that each morning rolls past known homeless encampments. When the van is full, it’s off. A contractor-run program in Denver matches people to jobs more formally, finding the highest level job the individual seems ready for. Again, it’s a day-by-day deal. Not everyone is sober enough or mentally ready enough for work five days a week. But on days they are, the programs are there.

A quick glance around Berkeley shows there’s plenty to do that city staff will never ever get to. Just pick any park, street, sidewalk or public space, and opportunities are apparent:

  • Cleanup and weeding. Habitat restoration. Planting.
  • Trail building and maintenance. Graffiti and garbage removal.
  • City ordinance awareness programs (for example sidewalk blockages, lead paint safety).
  • Gate attendants or monitors at fairs or events.
  • And yes, cleanup of encampments.

Accepting a handout is not as straightforward as it may seem. It may be hard to understand: when we see a person destitute on the street it’s natural to assume that a jacket and a meal and a roof are in order. That may be true, but if the person is missing the spirit to go on, they’ll face the same need day after day. As one participant in Denver’s day labor program said:

“When you take a good person (who’s) down, broken, discouraged, and you give them an opportunity to be proud of their self — to stand up and do something for their self — that’s one of the greatest gifts anybody can give to anybody. And for that, I’d like to say thank you.” Jeffrey Maes, Denver Colorado (quoted in Denver Post).

Making a similar point, North Korean escapee and author Yeonmi Park, who saw terrible hardship in her own life, wrote of volunteering at a homeless shelter in the USA:

“The homeless shelter where we served seemed like a palace to me. The homeless people had beds and laptops to use, and a refrigerator to keep their soda chilled. They were free to come and go. But they were not happy, and they had no hope. They thought they had nothing to offer. I found it astonishing.”

As Albuquerque has demonstrated with their “Better Way” program, getting started need not be expensive. An old van, a staff person to supervise, some tools are all that’s required. Let’s get it done, and offer the currently unemployable a respectful opportunity to have a role in society beyond “dependent.” I encourage Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the city to focus not just on perceived needs of the unhoused, but rather to help nourish the latent human abilities of all our residents. Let’s help everyone who is willing to have a role and job in their community, with a little-unrestricted spending cash as part of the deal.

Bryce Nesbitt is a resident of Berkeley, a co-founder of transportation company NextBus, director at the former City CarShare, and currently works as a consumer product designer.

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