OAKLAND — Picking up trash around Lake Merritt may not seem like a dream job. But for 49-year-old Luis Miranda-Rivera, who has been sleeping in his car, it’s what got him up in the morning.

“I just had a lot of downtime during my day and that gave me a purpose,” he said. “I had something to look forward to doing.”

That’s why Miranda-Rivera is thrilled the Bay Area’s Downtown Streets Team is returning to Oakland after a hiatus of more than a year. The nonprofit recruits volunteers who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness to help beautify different neighborhoods. In return, Downtown Streets pays them a stipend and connects them with other services they may need — from housing programs to job training.

It’s a unique way to address two of the region’s most urgent problems at once — homelessness, and trash and blight.

Founded in 2005, Downtown Streets Team operates in 16 cities in Northern California, including San Jose, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Redwood City. Volunteers generally work up to five days a week, for no more than four hours a day, picking up trash in their assigned neighborhood.

In Oakland, they make between $40 and $120 per week on average, depending on how much they work and if they’re a team leader. Volunteers choose how they’re paid, but cash isn’t an option. They can opt for gift cards to local vendors, or a check to help cover rent, a storage unit, a cell phone plan, or other bills.

The organization originally made its Oakland debut in October 2018 as a nine-month pilot program. The city of Oakland contributed $85,000 to the launch, and the Alameda County-Oakland Community Action Partnership chipped in another $40,000.

But those funds ran out in June 2019 and weren’t replenished. After volunteers picked up 16,125 gallons of trash, the program was forced to shut down.

“It was probably one of the most heartbreaking things that’s happened in my career,” said Julia Lang, who heads Downtown Streets’ East Bay teams. “We had a really beautiful thing going.”

So when Downtown Streets secured a new round of funding from the city this fall, Lang jumped at the chance to relaunch the program.

She started up again last month, with space for 40 volunteers — 70% of whom must be homeless. For now, the team is picking up trash around Lake Merritt, but Lang has plans to expand to East Oakland.

Lang said she still doesn’t know why city officials allocated $500,000 to Downtown Streets for the current fiscal year, but nothing for last year. Neither city administrators nor councilmembers asked about the funding provided a reason for the one-year gap.

With affordable housing stretched so thin, many of the program’s volunteers don’t actually escape homelessness. Of the 38 volunteers Downtown Streets Team served during its pilot program, nine found jobs and three found housing.

But the program was a game-changer for 48-year-old Resheemah White, who goes by RoRo. When she started volunteering, White, who has been homeless in the past, had lost her job and was at risk of losing her subsidized apartment.

The stipends White got for picking up trash helped pay her rent. And Downtown Streets staff helped her get her driver’s license and land a new job with homeless services nonprofit Bay Area Community Services.

OAKLAND CA – OCTOBER 9: Downtown Streets Team volunteer RoRo White picks up trash, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Oakland, Calif. Volunteers get a stipend and help finding housing and other resources. The program launched as a pilot in Oakland in 2018, but then shut down due to lack of funding. It re-launched last week. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Now, White works as a counselor helping people struggling with housing insecurity. She still tears up when she talks about how picking up trash around the lake changed her life.

“When we’re out there working, we actually beautify the community,” she said, “but we’re also beautifying ourselves within.”

In a small way, the program also helps shift the narrative around homelessness. When White was living on the street, passersby ignored her or looked at her with disgust. She felt worthless. But while she was picking up trash with Downtown Streets, people smiled at her and spoke to her.

“For somebody, a complete stranger, to come up to you and say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate the work that you’re doing,’ with a smile, that was my joy,” White said. “Just for somebody to recognize me. To notice me as a person.”

Miranda-Rivera started volunteering with Downtown Streets in 2018, while he was living in Oakland’s first cabin community for homeless residents at 6th and Castro streets. When he got housing through that program, Downtown Streets staff bought him dishes, bedding, pots and pans and everything else he needed for his new home.

And when he lost that home because his six-month rent subsidy ran out and he couldn’t cover the cost on his disability benefits, Downtown Streets became even more important to him.

After a brief stint in another of the city’s cabin communities, Miranda-Rivera fell into homelessness again in March. He rejoined Downtown Streets as soon as it relaunched last month, and is putting his stipend toward his storage unit and cell phone bill. Without that extra money, it was hard to stretch his $1,000 government check to the end of every month. He didn’t always get enough to eat.

But the best part of the program isn’t the money — it’s how it fills his days.

“I was waiting for them to come back,” Miranda-Rivera said. “I got a purpose again.”


By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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