New bill would start pilot program for homeless to be hired for work

New bill would start pilot program for homeless to be hired for work (PHOTO: KOMO News)

A bill that would create a three-year pilot program for certain cities to hire people who are considered homeless is now being considered by Washington state lawmakers.

The intent is to use the homeless labor for beautification projects, but it would really be up to participating cities to “innovate” jobs for the homeless according to the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Hans Zeiger representing greater Puyallup.

“It’s not going to cost us millions and millions of dollars in the budget to kick start some very meaningful work opportunities for homeless adults to make improvements to their communities,” said the Republican representative of the 25th legislative district.

The bill’s Senate analysis says cities such as Albuquerque, Boise, Denver, Dallas, Omaha, San Diego and Anaheim have undertaken such programs. The jobs have included pulling weeds in parks, laying sod, picking up trash and tidying up grounds at local dumps.

At the Ray of Hope day center in Auburn, Debbie Christian has lead a program where people benefiting from the center’s services, hot meals and overnight shelter, "give back” to the City by volunteering to clean up trash in the city.

“People like to work for something, it gives them some dignity,” Christian said. She thinks the pilot project is a “good idea” and would also like to see it accompanied with subsidized housing.

“Maybe you get housing that you sort of work for, there's a little bit of effort into getting that and then you get paid for some of these jobs around town where you could buy your own hygiene supplies or your own clothing,” says Christian.

She says housing is what the people she deals with are asking for, and picking up trash at minimum wage won’t get them the rent money they need to get out of homelessness.

Zeiger sees his bill jump starting programs that work, including what Ray of Hope is doing.

“Just putting a roof over somebody's head may help to stabilize them but a lot of folks want work — need work — and work is fundamentally dignifying,” Zeiger said.

People hired under the program will be paid at least the local minimum wage and be connected to organizations that provide wraparound housing services. The pilot is limited to two cities in Western Washington and one in Eastern Washington but those cities will have to put some “skin in the game,” according to Zeiger.

To receive state funding, the cities will have to match the grant money received from the state. The state would pay $168,000 to administer the program.

“Let’s allow cities to innovate — to figure out what works best for them,” Zeiger said.

Those hired are not considered state employees and are exempt from state civil service, retirement and leave provisions. They are also excluded from unemployment compensation coverage . Program project supervisors must be city employees.

“It would be very nice to get paid versus doing it for nothing,” said Mary Anne Wooden, who says she’s been living on the street for the last year with her son in South Seattle.

“It would help my dignity and my self-worth,” she said.

The bill is far from becoming law. It’s passed out of its first committee and is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. There is no companion bill on the House side.

Christian does have a piece of advice.

“It needs to be sold better than 'you are the new garbage man in town.'”

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