Benson Howard can move into his own Downtown Boise apartment as soon as he saves enough money for a deposit.
“So hopefully next month I’ll be in my own place,” he said.
That’s a huge stride for a man who’s spent the last eight years living off-and-on at Interfaith Sanctuary, a homeless shelter on the edge of Downtown between River Street, Americana Boulevard and the I-184 Connector. Howard, 38, is earning regular pay as an employee of Boise Parks and Recreation. He’s one of 10 Sanctuary residents to land a job through a partnership between Sanctuary and the city of Boise.
“I actually like it just about better than any other job I’ve had,” said Howard, who grew up in Louisiana and moved to Boise in 2008.
The hiring program appears to be the first of its kind in the United States.
No one knew what to expect when Parks and Recreation hired Benson and a group of his fellow Sanctuary guests this spring. Doug Holloway, the department’s director, hoped just a few workers from the first group he hired would show up on a regular basis.
The city tip-toed into the program. It relied on Sanctuary’s leaders and case managers to recommend good job candidates and prepare them to work. The city hired the workers on a one-month trial basis with the idea that it could scrap the program if it didn’t work out.
So far, results have surpassed expectations.
“They’re fantastic workers,” said Andrea Wurtz, a Parks and Recreation crew chief. “They show up on time. They’re ready to go. They’re very positive. They’re happy people.”
Emboldened by the program’s success, Parks and Recreation has expanded it. Two crews of Interfaith Sanctuary residents now work as eight-month seasonal employees, pulling weeds, laying sod and otherwise maintaining parks. That helps Holloway’s cause because finding seasonal workers has become harder in recent years.
And the workers have made big progress in managing mental or emotional problems that plagued them, said Jodi Peterson, development director for Interfaith Sanctuary. Three of the Sanctuary workers have landed other jobs, Holloway said. Three others have found homes outside of the shelter, said Peterson.
David Williams is one such success story. Williams, 57, said he stayed at Sanctuary for about a year and a half. He recently moved in with his sister in Garden City.
“Without this job, I wouldn’t be living there,” Williams said. “I’d still be living at the shelter.”
One big challenge looms. On Oct. 31, Boise’s seasonal parks work ends, and the Sanctuary crews won’t have jobs through the winter unless they find other work. Peterson, Holloway and a host of people who work with them are looking for those opportunities.
“The amount of progress that this group has made is in part (due) to the fact that they have someplace to go four days a week,” Peterson said. “And we feel that to not have work and to maybe draw unemployment will create a decline in their progress.”
The Sanctuary worker program was inspired by a similar initiative in Albuquerque, N.M.
In Albuquerque, a city-operated van picks up panhandlers and gives them work for a day. Boise leaders liked the general goal of that program, but some of the details didn’t sit right at City Hall.
For one thing, there was concern about whether the city could withhold taxes appropriately from workers’ earnings if it hired them on a day-to-day basis. For another, the city and Sanctuary wanted to give workers regular income and expectations. They figured that offered the best chance at success for both Parks and Recreation and the workers themselves.
The breakthrough came at a meeting Jan. 20 among Holloway, Peterson, Interfaith Sanctuary board members and representatives of the city’s parks, human resources and legal teams. Andrew Scoggin, president of the Interfaith board, threw out a simple idea: Instead of hiring Sanctuary guests as independent contractors, Parks and Recreation would bring them on as city employees.
Interfaith Sanctuary would get the workers ready. Candidates for the parks jobs would have to be actively engaged with case managers who help them face life’s challenges. The case managers would work with the job candidates to obtain social security cards, identification cards and checking accounts where the city could deposit their earnings.
Holloway, Peterson and Scoggin said they walked out of that Jan. 20 meeting feeling like this program might actually work. Over the next few months, Holloway and Peterson worked out the details. In March, the City Council signed off on the pilot program.
Other groups threw their weight behind the program. Life’s Kitchen, which trains young people to work in the food service industry, provides meals for the workers. Mountain West Bank opened checking accounts for them.
‘A SYSTEM THAT VALUES ME’
The city relaxed its hiring standards for the Interfaith program.
Under normal circumstances, a criminal record might be a disqualifier. In this context, the city does more digging. It looks at the circumstances of the job candidates’ criminal offenses, how long ago they occurred and whether the candidates are working to address issues related to those offenses.
Once they were on the job, it didn’t take long for the workers to prove themselves.
Danny Trevett, a habitat technician for Parks and Recreation, said he’s been impressed with the crews, partly because they’re good workers and partly because of their attitudes.
“They’re willing to try anything,” Trevett said.” They just get right in there. And they ask questions, too. They ask why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Occasionally, workers have shown disruptive behavior. One of them is still suspended from the job program, Peterson said.
“It’s no different, though, than the other 650 temporary and seasonal employees that we have,” Holloway said.
None of the workers’ outbursts has been violent, Peterson said. Behavioral problems are more exception than rule, she said.
“This program says if you’re having a bad day, we’re not going to fire you,” Peterson said. “And when you eliminate that pressure, they rarely have a bad day.”
Interfaith Sanctuary case managers tag along to help the workers address problems that come up. Their top priority is making sure the workers are drinking enough water.
“For once, they’re saying, ‘Oh, there’s a system that actually values me and wants me to show up,’” Scoggin said.
Holloway said Interfaith workers will be candidates for permanent jobs when Parks and Recreation has openings.
“We’ve already identified a couple employees in this pool that we could be looking at as soon as the next year,” he said. “Full-time, with health benefits, with retirement.”
The Parks-Sanctuary job program’s most important contribution might be to prove that homeless people with checkered pasts and troubled lives can become viable candidates for gainful employment — the foundation for a productive life.
“A lot of people say, ‘Get a job.’ For a lot of valid reasons, employers are hesitant,” Scoggin said. “This shows that, given the right kind of support system, given the right kind of backup, (employing homeless people) can work with an organization that really needs to deliver a service or product.”
Will people who run private companies and other government agencies believe that? The answer might determine how successful the jobs program can be. There’s no reason Sanctuary guests have to work for Boise Parks and Recreation alone.
Finding work elsewhere, especially during the winter months when Parks and Recreation’s seasonal work stops, is a big hurdle. Holloway said he’s looking for work the Sanctuary crews can do between November and March. Possibilities include jobs at the zoo and shoveling snow off sidewalks.
“We refuse to just create a job for a job,” Holloway said. “That’s not good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
Peterson said her team is looking, too. She hopes other agencies or private companies will hire some of the shelter’s guests. She said Sanctuary has 18 people on a waiting list for the parks job program.
For selfish reasons, Holloway hopes the members of his crews stay active. That will make his job easier in the spring, when next year’s seasonal crews need to be hired.
“I firmly have always believed that if someone wants to work, they deserve the right to be able to work. But they need that opportunity,” Holloway said. “We’ve just proven that people who want to work will work. And not just show up and be a warm body. They’re actually now progressing through different skill sets within our department.”