Will paying homeless people to spruce up Tacoma help them and city?

By Allison Needles

The News Tribune

Standing in Alling Park in Tacoma on Thursday, Parker Wilson said passersby wouldn’t know he was homeless.

“For this program I think people see us, and (we) look, like actual workers,” the 29-year-old told The News Tribune in between pouring mulch around the trees in the park.

Parker is part of a two-year program with nonprofit Valeo Vocation called Transitional Employment Pathway (TEP), which aims to help people experiencing homelessness build up job skills.

This month, a spin-off pilot program with Valeo called the Hire Program will launch, thanks to $60,000 from the City of Tacoma’s general fund. The pilot is expected to operate through December.

In the Hire Program, people in encampments or shelters across the city will be asked if they would like to take on tasks like landscape work or cleaning up litter and get paid for it. People will be selected based on input from the homeless outreach team.

The program is similar to TEP, but the Hire Program will recruit from across the city, rather than a handful of shelters.

“We can go meet people where they are in the community in different places instead of just being limited to stability sites,” said TEP case manager Benjamin McLean, adding that the program seeks to make “people productive members of society.”

Participants will be paid minimum wage, or $13.50 an hour, and can work up to 20 hours four days a week, said Sherri Jensen, CEO of Valeo Vocation. The pilot is aiming to serve about 70 people.

Council member Robert Thoms was behind the creation of the Hire Program and worked to get funds into the budget to launch the project. He said the program provides a pathway toward stability for people who are homeless and puts resources directly into the hands of people who need it most.

“It’s not a program being done to them — it’s a program done by them,” Thoms said.

The program is also intended to address the proliferation of trash across Tacoma, Thoms said. While the program is still in its early stages, he hopes to develop a map of potential sites to be cleaned up with crews from the Hire Program.

The city also recently launched two other pilot programs to address trash in Tacoma, including a $87,335 contract with PNW Bio to dispose of hazardous waste, like needles, across the city. The program started in March and ends in May. Also in March, the city signed a contract with Fairlane Hauling Company for $66,930 to remove litter and debris in city rights of way.

Valeo has contracted with the city of Tacoma for other projects, including shelters and TEP, which Parker said on Thursday is helping himself and others like him. Parker said he’s been homeless for two and a half years because of drug use and said he now wants to save up in the hopes of finding housing.

“It’s very beneficial,” he said of the program. “I just feel people need to know that homeless people want to improve their lives.”

Jerrilynn Sisneros, 59, and Christy Wells, 34, are both living at the city’s micro shelter at Sixth Avenue and North Orchard Street. Wells said she heard about the program through Sisneros, who said she joined to grow her resume.

Wells was interested in joining, too.

“I want to be more outdoors, and I enjoy being outdoors. I like to be around people,” she said. “I don’t like being cooped up in the little place.”

She added that she thinks the new Hire Program is a good idea.

“It’s helping me and others,” she said.

McLean said he hopes the program leads to housing, but it can also lead to jobs.

Richard Madison is community outreach and special projects coordinator for Metro Parks Tacoma. Madison said some of the participants could be candidates for future job openings in landscape work. Valeo partnered with Metro Parks for work at multiple parks, including Alling, McKinley and Titlow.

“We hope this turns into a long-term opportunity,” he said Thursday at Alling Park.