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A Clean Sweep for San Rafael’s Homeless

with 11 comments

The San Rafael City Council voted on February 19th to contract with the Downtown Streets Team, a Palo Alto nonprofit, to offer what some critics call make-work employment as a means of helping homeless people get their lives in better order. From what I can gather from our local paper, the project will cost $272,000 the first year, with the goal of getting at least 12 people back on their feet and headed upstream. The program promises a variety of services, but street cleaning seems the front door and most visible part of the program. If you’ve ever been to downtown San Rafael, you’ve probably noticed that the area is already nice and clean, so either these new workers will be taking over from current street cleaners, or we’re going to see some super-immaculate street corners. An extra scrubbing for $272,000 to improve the downtown business climate and help 12 homeless people? By some counts, there are about 1,220 homeless people living in Marin County, with 45% living in San Rafael. No one has explained to me how this program benefits the other 1,208 homeless, or even those living in San Rafael.

street project plaza-1

How clean does a street have to be?

If I seem I little skeptical . . .

One of the things that bothers me most is the lack of candor about this project’s origins and hoped-for results. I think it grew out of complaints from downtown merchants that homeless people were scaring away business, and their hope that a way could be found to rid downtown of the small percentage of homeless people actually creating problems. Somehow the business community has persuaded Marin charitable foundations to fund the project, whereas I think in should have been paid for by San Rafael Chamber of Commerce members.

Sleeping on the streets

A safe place to hang out during the day might be a better alternative.

As I see it, everyone has a right  to be on the streets as long as they aren’t breaking the law. Homeless people in the downtown area are often scapegoated to explain away some of the failing businesses long overdue for major facelifts. After all, why go downtown when just a few minutes away shoppers can browse several freshly created upscale malls with plenty of free parking? It’s a shame, but this is happening to local businesses all over the country.

For Sale

Some San Rafael businesses are victims of the times, not the homeless.

Duplication of services. Marin County already has a number of experienced homeless programs, several in the downtown area, sometimes not communicating well with each other, and sometimes duplicating services. Adding one more agency — one that will take time to get off the ground — seems likely to compound this problem. Aside from the street-cleaning part of the project, I can’t see what services this Palo Alto agency is going to offer that aren’t already covered by local case managers who know their target population better than anyone else.

At the very least this new program should partner with one of the well-established organizations in San Rafael so it can get a jump start on the efficient use of local resources.

I’ve met a number of street people who hang out in central San Rafael, and they’re mostly good people with nowhere else to go. I wonder if $272,000 wouldn’t be better spent on permanent housing or a day center, perhaps even a 24-hour center, where some folks could sober up, or at least get out of the cold and rain when they have nowhere else to go.

It seems that the premise of the Downtown Streets Team is the belief that sweeping streets for $5 an hour is the gateway to restoring dignity and moving homeless people into permanent employment. This is a worthwhile goal, but I wonder if it will work for most people in the target population. Many if not most are mentally or physically challenged and are already receiving financial help. In a depressed job market, is it realistic or honest to hold out hope for even a minimum-wage job? Hopefully it will work for some, but it won’t work for the majority.

What they need first is supportive housing, a multi-service day center, or even a supervised campground–not broom training dressed up as a work-readiness program. Yes, there are homeless persons who would benefit from job training, but for the most part they aren’t the people hanging around downtown.

Of these three suggestions, probably the most immediately doable is a multipurpose day program, or even one open 24 hours. I first heard this idea from someone who works with street people every day and has an intimate knowledge of their needs. It could provide a number of services, provide an alternative to congregating on downtown street corners, and even allow people to get out of the cold rain in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the money for this has just been allocated somewhere else.

Is this kicking the can down the road or will it lead to real progress?

The Downtown Streets Team has an impressive web site, claiming success in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. So let’s wish them luck and hope for the best. It’s possible I’m missing something here. If I’m being too harsh, come back in a year to see how many participants are in permanent housing and meaningful jobs. I’ll be happy to apologize.

These are just my personal opinions, of course. People I highly respect fully support the Downtown Streets Team project.

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Written by Ron Greene

March 6, 2013 at 8:59 am

11 Responses

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  1. I agree. Susan Date: Wed, 6 Mar 2013 16:59:57 +0000 To: susankirsch@hotmail.com

    Susan Kirsch

    March 6, 2013 at 9:03 am

  2. Doesnt seem like you have to many budget Cuts in San Rafael…

    Von meinem iPhone gesendet

    Konstantin Mangold

    March 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm

  3. Excellent article!!

    Gayle Donsky

    March 6, 2013 at 2:01 pm

  4. Go for it, Ron!! Hurray !

    Sent from my iPad

    Judith Pruess-Mellow

    March 8, 2013 at 8:51 pm

  5. Yes… thank you Ron! A safe place where people can get away from the stresses of the streets (and the way they are treated on them) should be the priority

    Alison Hendley

    March 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    • I sure hope so. There is some talk that this will actually happen.

      Ron Greene

      March 31, 2013 at 9:16 am

  6. I realize this is an older post, but it came up when I searched for Downtown Streets Team. I’m curious how the program has been going? Has it been a success?

    I read an article a couple weeks ago about a main social service provider in San Rafael being pushed out of downtown. Are you in the loop and know what’s going on?

    Btw… I’m a human rights organizer here in SF for the Coalition on Homelessness, so I’m curious to hear what’s going on there.

    Kelley Cutler

    September 18, 2016 at 12:41 pm

  7. Hi Kelley,

    The SR Streets Team continues to do well as far as I know. New local management has cut me out of the loop. Apparently they don’t need my photos. The Ritter Center continues to be under heavy pressure from conservative business interests to move or shut down. Thanks for your interest.

    Ron Greene

    September 21, 2016 at 10:29 am

    • Thank you for responding. I’m very aware of what’s happening with the Ritter Center and it’s awful. I know people in SF who have been helping them, but the struggle is a tough one. I wonder how engaged the interfaith groups working on social justice are around this or other similar issues.

      Kelley Cutler

      September 21, 2016 at 9:54 pm


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