Those who sleep in parks, on streets will be cleaning them up

Soon people who sleep in parks, on sidewalks and along rivers will be cleaning them up.

The Downtown Streets Team — a Bay Area-based nonprofit that helps homeless people by giving them volunteer work and helping them get jobs and housing — is now in Modesto. Team members are expected to begin rolling up their sleeves Tuesday by picking up trash and litter at Beard Brook Park.

Modesto, Stanislaus County and the Stanislaus Community Foundation have pledged $1.35 million over three years to get the program started. The city will provide $300,000 of the funding. The Modesto Downtown Streets Team will work on securing funding from other sources so it can it can expand its services and the number of people it helps.

The Modesto team can have as many as 25 team members at a time and expects to help 100 people annually. Some will go on to jobs and housing, while others will drop out. It is expected to take about six months for those who stick with the program to find employment and a home.

Team members can volunteer removing trash four hours each weekday. They earn a $20 gift card to Safeway or Walgreens for each four-hour shift or $100 a week for five days of volunteering. The Downtown Streets Team can work with team members to pay for cell phones, car repairs if a member is living in his car, and similar expenses instead of issuing gift cards.

The homeless also work with the Downtown Streets Team’s employment specialist and its case manager in getting the help they need, said Greg Pensinger, the DST’s Modesto project manager.

The Downtown Streets Team started in Palo Alto in 2005 and has since expanded to 12 other Northern California communities, with Modesto the most recent. The program is based on the idea that homeless people can rebuild their self-worth through work and learn the skills, liking showing up on time and being part of a team, needed to navigate life.

Downtown Streets Team Chief Program Officer Chris Richardson told The Bee in August when local officials were looking at bringing the program here that the nonprofit had worked with roughly 2,000 homeless people since 2009 and had placed about 800 in long-term employment and 900 in permanent housing. He said there was an overlap among those who found jobs and housing.

Thirty-year-old James Best is among the first six members of the Modesto team. He said he’s been homeless for about nine months after he said his mother asked him to leave her home.

“This is something to help point me in the right direction,” Best said. He said the right direction includes a permanent job and perhaps going to school to study hospitality management. “I’ve always wanted to open my own restaurant or be a personal assistant or wedding planner.”

Best said he’s worked seasonal jobs throughout the United States, including as a server on a train that catered to tourists in Alaska and at the front desk at a Colorado ski resort. He said he grew up in Stockton and came to Modesto in November 2017 to help his mother.

Pensinger said the program is open to everyone. He said those interested in joining can learn how by attending the weekly meetings held Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. at Heart and Soul Coffee, 930 11th St., in downtown.

Pensinger said based on discussions with the city and the county, team members will start their cleanups in Beard Brook, nearby Tuolumne River Regional Park and the surrounding streets. He said by April some team members should be assigned to downtown and by June other team members will be picking up trash along McHenry and Briggsmore avenues.

He said the county has given the streets team a van so members can concentrate their work along McHenry and Briggsmore problem areas. They also will pick up trash in the county pockets in Modesto.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.