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State looks to build on Kern's success employing homeless people in highway cleanup work

A Kern County initiative that has cleaned up local highways while helping people on the street get back on their feet is increasingly serving as a model for the rest of the state.

After Caltrans adopted its own version of an 8-year-old partnership between the Kern Council of Governments and the Bakersfield Homeless Center, Gov. Gavin Newsom in May proposed spending $1.5 billion on similar efforts.

The program has removed countless tons of roadside trash and debris while providing employment opportunities for hundreds of people who had been homeless, in many cases leading them to permanent housing and stable employment.

"It costs a little more money but the benefits to the people at the homeless center are huge," said Kern COG executive director Ahron Hakimi, who helped spearhead the program in 2013. He said the program was the first of its kind in the state.

The governor's proposal for a one-time, three-year effort to beautify the state's transportation network can be traced to the city of Bakersfield's 2009 program putting about a dozen people from the homeless center to work at the city's green waste facility.

Kern COG, a regional transportation planning organization, saw promise in what was quickly welcomed as a successful innovation. It arranged a separate contract putting people from the homeless center to work removing trash along local highways.

When funding became an issue, former state Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield sponsored a bill that ultimately allowed money tied to freeway call boxes to be spent on removing safety hazards such as tumbleweeds that on windy days can cause drivers to swerve dangerously between lanes of traffic.

Over the years the program has provided work for up to 400 people who previously had nowhere to go, said Louis Gill, CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center. It was of particular help because people who have long gaps in their employment history often have trouble getting work, he said.

About 200 of these workers have gone on to find full-time work thanks to the opportunity, Gill said, and more than 500 people, children included, have since gained permanent housing because of the contract with Kern COG.

"I can tell you this has been a very successful program that has been warmly received by our community," Gill said. He added that the initiative was also the origin of the city's strike team clearing empty lots, alleys and sidewalks of trash and graffiti.

Kern COG Chairman Bob Smith, who also serves as a Bakersfield councilman, said the biggest success has been the way the program has led to permanent employment for workers.

"It's a great program," he said. It gives people job experience that allows them to build up their resume and then move back into society, he said.

Newsom's May 14 budget revise isn't limited to giving jobs to people who are homeless. Some of those who would be employed through the allocation are state employees, and the program is expected to serve local as well as state agencies.

A spokesman for the California State Transportation Agency said by email Caltrans is proud of its partnership with local governments on highway cleanups and associated job creation. He noted the governor's proposal would generate about 15,500 new positions including what he termed low-barrier jobs for vulnerable populations including at-risk youth, former prisoners, military veterans and people living on the street or working to get their own place.

"Given the success of the partnership with Bakersfield, Kern County and the Bakersfield Homeless Center to clean freeways, Caltrans is looking to develop similar programs in Fresno and Tulare counties," spokesman Garin Casaleggio wrote.