DENVER (AP) – Jeffrey Maes didn’t expect to live on the streets in his 50s. He had started several businesses, but he says the last one, a remodeling company, went south just as he was stretched thin on four properties.
He lost them all, he said, and ended up without a home – along with the realization that he was considered unemployable. But last year, he heard about a Denver-sponsored day-labor program that had helped friends get back on their feet.
After nearly four years of homelessness, Maes gave it a shot.
And on Jan. 16, he spoke about how the Denver Day Works program has helped restore his pride – and helped him find a full-time job retrofitting lights at the city’s Central Library – as city officials announced the expansion of the program in the coming year. During a news conference at the library, Mayor Michael Hancock and others said the first-year numbers exceeded most of their goals.
In the first year after the program’s launch in November 2016, Denver Human Services says 284 people worked at least a day – with all but 10 sticking around longer – performing landscaping duties in parks, helping out at the Denver Elections Division, aiding public-works crews and other job assignments.
Of those participants, Maes was among 110 who found full-time work, with 15 landing permanent or project-based city jobs and the rest finding work with dozens of outside private and public employers.
“When you take a good person (who’s) down, broken, discouraged, and you give them an opportunity to be proud of their self – to stand up and do something for their self – that’s one of the greatest gifts anybody can give to anybody,” said Maes, 57. “And for that, I’d like to say thank you.”
Denver Day Works, run by contractor Bayaud Enterprises, has organized work crews three days a week. Next month, it will add a fourth day, with a fifth shift planned later in the year.
That will allow an increase in capacity that may reduce the wait-list that stretched to eight weeks at times in 2017. The city also plans to get more departments involved, offering varied work opportunities that might better attract women, minorities and the disabled as participants.
The program, while robust, isn’t a panacea for Denver’s expansive homelessness problem, which has put pressure on city officials to address not only the need for job assistance but also housing and mental health services. But Hancock and others see the work program’s results as encouraging.
As part of Denver Day Works, Bayaud has helped connect participants with housing providers and, if eligible, public-assistance programs. It also supplies lunches for the workers, sometimes donated by restaurants.
At the end of each shift, they are paid wages of more than $12 an hour.
Hancock initiated Denver Day Works in late 2016 after reading a news report about a similar city day-labor program in Albuquerque. He budgeted $400,000 for the first year, about half of that for Bayaud’s administrative costs. That amount has increased to $696,300 for 2018.
The program’s success “shows what we’ve known all along – that people experiencing homelessness are no different” from other city residents, Hancock said. “They are hungry for the opportunity to work hard to achieve their personal dreams and to take their self-sufficiency in their own hands.”
Some of the figures and data from the program’s pilot year point to challenges, as highlighted in an outside evaluation by the University of Colorado Denver’s Center on Network Science.
A striking statistic: Just 57 of the 110 participants who were hired into regular jobs out of the program retained those jobs for more than 90 days. A researcher said this highlighted the need for the program to help participants adapt to those transitions.
“One of the things that we learned was how difficult it is for folks to transition from being homeless to being expected to be at work five days a week, when you may not even have a place to put your stuff every day,” said Danielle Varda, an associate professor at CU Denver.
Maes was among three former Denver Day Works participants who for months have worked on a project crew that’s retrofitting all of the Central Library’s fluorescent lights with LEDs.
Another participant, Regina Pizarro, 46, teared up while talking about her experience in the day-labor program. She now has a job providing customer service at a call center, and she credits Denver Day Works for putting her on that path.
“It didn’t matter whether I was shoveling mulch, working at Denver Votes – it didn’t matter what I was doing, because I had a job,” she said, adding about her Bayaud supervisors: “They have a lot of compassion and understanding. They don’t look down on us because we’ve been on the streets.”