“At the end of the day, you’ve actually worked for the Mayor. It's a big deal. It's not some handout. It's a public works job site.”
A past-due power bill is one of the factors that prevents AJ Ayers from renting an apartment and transitioning out of homelessness.
Every few weeks he joins other people who are experiencing homelessness in picking up trash as part of a City of Memphis work crew. After a hard day’s work, Ayers takes home $45 and inches closer to paying off his debt to Memphis Light, Gas & Water.
“I keep seeking and trying to get out of this situation I’m in,” said Ayers. “I’m doing what I can to pay it off. It’s helping me out a lot.”
Ayers is one of the regular participants in the Work Local program, a City-backed effort to alleviate homelessness and blight in the city. The program is housed at the Hospitality Hub, a nonprofit service organization that provides assistance but not housing to Memphis’ homeless population.
Twice a week, Keynnon Mumphrey, director of Work Local, drives the streets of Memphis to recruit panhandlers for that day’s work site.
“We ask them, ‘Do you want to work?’ A lot can happen when they just agree to that,” Mumphrey said.
Participants of Work Local, which employs people who are experiencing homelessness, clears an alley in South Memphis.A group of ten spend the day picking up debris and hauling it off to a sanctioned disposal site.
Public complaints to the 3-1-1 line, maintained by the Department of Public Works, determine which part of the city the work crew will beautify.
People can participate up to 12 times in the program. They are paid $9 an hour for five hours of work and receive a free lunch provided by Downtown restaurants such as The Peabody, The Little Tea Shop and Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.
“At the end of the day, you’ve actually worked for the Mayor,” said Jarad Bingham, Work Local coordinator. “It's a big deal. It's not some handout. It's a public works job site.”
For some participants in the program, true change occurs after they leave a Work Local job site. Through the temporary cleanup job, they learn about the other programs that the Hospitality Hub offers such as counseling and sourcing federal and state identification.
Eunice Buffington, jobs coordinator at the Hospitality Hub, said she has seen a marked increase in demand for her job readiness services, such as resume preparation and mock interviews, since the Work Local program launched in September 2016.
She believes the Work Local program identifies people who want to get back into the workforce but lack the confidence to do it.
“Sometimes when you're out of the workforce, it's a daunting task to get back into and get polished up and get a resume,” she said.
A Work Local crew member cleans up a Raleigh neighborhood.“There were several guys who had just been doing panhandling, but when they got back to work and got paid at the end, they came to me looking for the next step. That encouragement builds each time.”
The data shows that the Work Local program connects more people to the Hospitality Hub’s broader services.
The first 6 months of the program served 111 different members of the homeless population. Over half were new clients at the Hospitality Hub. Eight of those people enrolled in the job readiness program and four found permanent job placements.
The program is set to expand from two to three days, which Bingham believes will help more Memphians connect with resources to bring them out of homelessness.
Its organizers admit the program may be prohibitive to people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses who are unable to work.
“I know from firsthand experience that the reasons for homelessness are varied. Mental illness, substance abuse, financial reasons,” said Mayor Jim Strickland, adding that the 2016 recent point-in-time survey counted 1,500 people experiencing homelessness in Memphis.
The City of Memphis, which supports the Work Local program through a $125,000 allocation through the Public Works budget, is weak on providing other comprehensive services.
All shelters in the city are run by nonprofits which charge for overnight stays. A city ordinance fines people who are found panhandling at Downtown hot spots and in intersections during rush hour.
Strickland said that private-public partnerships, like what is demonstrated in the Work Local program, will continue to dominate the city’s approach to alleviating homelessness.
“There is more work to do. We need more facilities and more beds.”
To find ways to get involved in volunteering with the Memphis homeless population, visit Volunteer Compass.