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Thursday, Feb 28 2013 11:00 PM

LOUIS GILL: Freeway cleanup opportunity means a lot to homeless crew

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    Louis Gill

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A recent letter writer posed this question, presumably in jest: Because volunteer work crews had been banned from cleaning litter from the shoulders of our freeways, but negotiations were under way with Caltrans to hire clients of the Bakersfield Homeless Center to perform that potentially risky work, were we to infer that homeless people were "expendable"?

The answer, in a word, is no. We at the Bakersfield Homeless Center take this perspective: A good reference and a positive job history are invaluable tools to both avoid and defeat homelessness. Helping people become self-sufficient rather than lifelong dependents is our primary goal. Some in the homeless population will always need assistance but a large number of individuals are simply out of work and just want a chance. A partnership between the city of Bakersfield, Caltrans and the Bakersfield Homeless Center can be that chance.

It is our sincere belief that no human being is expendable and we are totally committed to preserving both the safety and well-being of our clients and employees. We are working with the city of Bakersfield and Caltrans to make sure that we provide every available safety measure to keep our employees safe. It is true that some working environments are inherently more dangerous than others, but many of our county's residents have occupations that would be considered equally risky. The goal of this program is to make possible an opportunity to earn an honest wage for an honest day's labor.

The entry level (or re-entry) job market has a lot of competition in today's business climate. This is even more difficult with the challenges of homelessness and unfortunate life choices. Many of our clients have been looking for work for months and some for years. Our clients have been knocking on doors, filling out applications, delivering resumes -- and in many cases losing hope. We must provide our clients the avenues to re-enter the work environment and build a sustainable future.

Over the last three years, our clients were given the opportunity to turn into our employees by providing the bulk of the labor for the city of Bakersfield's green waste facility. We contract for the labor and hire our clients as employees. At first, our employees were met with skepticism by the supervisors at the facility, but now they are regarded as one of the best crews to have ever worked at their facility. It is because of the good work of the green waste crew that this new opportunity for highway cleanup is possible.

Our green waste program has a waiting list of people anxious for an opportunity. They work outside around heavy equipment and sort through debris and trash that can be smelly and repugnant. To any outsider it would appear to be a most undesirable work environment but to our former clients who are now employees, it is the start of success. A member of the first "former client" crew we hired three years ago said it best. When asked how they dealt with the funk, one employee looked up, smiled and replied, "Smells like money."

The opportunity to provide the sweet scent of money, which equates to financial security for our homeless families, is critical to the success of our community. All of our clients and employees are valuable. We sincerely believe if an individual wants to work and is able, then we should support that idea. Are these workers "expendable"? Never.

Our people need jobs, our freeways need help, and our government needs an option that makes financial sense. Let's care enough, and respect our homeless population enough, to give them a chance to become self-sustaining.

Louis Gill is CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center and the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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