CHAMPAIGN — There’s a lot separating Albuquerque, N.M., and Champaign-Urbana. But now the homeless in both places have something in common: They’re able to work for $10 an hour beautifying their cities.
Inspired by "There’s a Better Way," an initiative on tackling homelessness started in the New Mexico city, City of Champaign Township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom thought something similar could be a good fit here.
"Essentially, what they were doing is they take homeless individuals and put them to work doing municipal beautification projects," Quarnstrom said of Albuquerque’s program. "There, it’s taking care of trash and tumbleweeds. But they provide them with cash at the end of the work day."
Quarnstrom, with a staff of just three, said he saw the need for assistance to homeless people in town and decided to partner with CU at Home to launch the CU at Work initiative.
The program is funded by the township but administered by CU at Home.
CU at Work participants, accompanied by a truck packed with tools, are paid to walk the streets picking up trash for four hours a day. After their work concludes for the day, they receive a meal.
Tim Stenger, 62, who has been participating in CU at Work since it began in August, said he’s hooked.
He said he’d do it just for the Jimmy John’s sandwich at the end of the shift — or even for free.
"We’re helping Champaign, that’s all I care about," Stenger said. "All I’m doing is trying to make it look a little better. I didn’t do it last week, just to get some rotation and more people involved, but I came in, just in case they needed me."
Stenger said he hopes the program continues to expand and that trash pickup extends to downtown Champaign as well as parks. He said he also wishes there’d be more of a focus on the entrance to Campustown via Green Street in Champaign.
"They spent all this money on this beautiful sign, and then there’s bottles and trash all over the place," he said.
The program is a way to help some of the most vulnerable people in the community, Quarnstrom said. It provides them with income they otherwise wouldn’t have, giving them a feeling "of dignity and responsibility."
And with a captive audience, Quarnstrom said, the township and CU at Home are able to offer case work to those who participate.
"If you need help for finding housing, or SNAP benefits, or whatever the help may be, we say ‘here’s your options,’" Quarnstrom said. "Already, we’re starting to build those relationships. Over time, hopefully we’ll change the stigma on homelessness and panhandlers. They’re doing something good for the community. They’re working."
Originally, the goal was to have five people one day each week participate in the program, but Quarnstrom said he quickly realized the need was much bigger.
"It’s all that we were sure we’d be able to handle in terms of logistics and the financials," Quarnstrom said. "The first two weeks, we worked with five people but had other people waiting. And then we had 11 and 10 about a month in, with even more people waiting.
"We’re managing the best we can, but it is growing in popularity."
The program is in the pilot phase now and will stay that way for another year.
Quarnstrom said he wants private donors, businesses and anyone willing to help to support the program and spread out the financial burden.
"My goal is to show that it works," he said. "It’s to show that it’s successful and to show that there’s hope, and that will hopefully get other people involved."
Rob Dalhaus, executive director of CU at Home, said he doesn’t want to grow the program too much at this time, given the limited resources available.
"I wouldn’t want it to grow too big and overwhelm us," he said. "I want to keep it about this size — 10 or so people — and then change that down the road."
But for him, the program should be an invitation for the community to take the time and speak with some of the people participating in CU at Work.
"When they see us out there, what I want them to do is go and talk to these guys," Dalhaus said. "Get to know folks on the street. Come and see what we do."