I got a text from Holly Lazzerini, funder and co-creator of the city’s program to pay the homeless to clean up the bike trail. “Sal, you like to write. Can you write an article about the Bakersfield Homeless Center crews on the bike trail, telling what they’ve done?”
I responded, “Sure." I started by calling the lead at the BHC program. Great news! He had been hired at a government agency and would no longer be “part of the crew.” A success story. Through his BHC job, he had shown his strong work ethic and landed a good career job. On his way out, he reported that crews picked up 2,059 bags on the bike trail in 2017. That, in addition to numerous shopping carts and truckloads of abandoned homeless encampments. The crews go out there weekly to clean this trail.
The bike trail adoption was spearheaded by Holly. As a regular user of the bike trails, she was dismayed by how the litter and abandoned camps turned a Bakersfield treasure into an eyesore. So she and her family stepped up and donated $45,000 from their Lazzerini Foundation over two years to hire a crew from BHC.
The results are profound, and even though the effort is ongoing and the homeless still populate the area, the difference in appearance is encouraging. That we can create employment opportunities for some of our homeless population while improving our community is so much more than encouraging. It's game-changing.
Another success story is that of Nancy Clover, who The Californian reported was killed crossing a street on Jan. 10. Before her tragic death, she had been homeless but had turned her life around thanks to the same jobs program at BHC. As a result of that job, she had found housing, purpose and happiness.
While her death is tragic, the way she changed her life and affected others in such a positive way is a success story. Creating employment opportunities for those who have given up hope, for those who rely on government and social services to survive — now that changes the paradigm!
I would call Holly’s a success story, too. Her family’s foundation has committed itself to funding job skills training programs and entire industries to support those jobs, in addition to funding the bike trail cleanup. They compare their efforts to the mustard seed that, once planted, “grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (Mark 4:32).
In addition to the human side of these success stories, the beauty of them is their multiplier effects. For every dollar spent paying the homeless to do a job, the community pays a proportionate share less in other costs to include health care, housing and public safety. Another multiplier effect happens when other agencies or cities pursue similar strategies (Caltrans, Visalia, Fresno, et al). You begin to see how the mustard seed grows and branches out.
In a recent meeting with Theresa Hitchcock, director of America’s Job Center, she shared how these jobs programs are the new paradigm. On her desk is a book titled, "Give Work," authored by Leila Jana, about how matching people with jobs is the greatest gift of all. With government funds running low and safety-net programs under stress, these handouts are scarcer. In the meantime, with unemployment levels low and businesses adding jobs due to tax cuts, an opportunity exists for new solutions at the crossroads of these economic factors.
Employers need to know that between agencies like the Mission, BHC, ETR and other agencies, the recently down-and-out are being trained to be successful in employment. By hiring these folks, businesses can be a part of the solution — another success story.
While this may not eliminate our homeless population, when you use the “job” to solve a societal problem as these programs do, we as a society get a multiplier benefit, like a clean bike trail and fewer homeless people. In the “big branches,” a lot of success stories can be perched.
Sal Moretti, a retired city superintendent, is the co-chair of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, and executive director of Recycling Lives. The opinions expressed are his own.