The city of Denver is more than halfway through its plan to test an idea that is surprisingly rare for how simple it sounds. Since November, the city has worked to find and create decent-paying jobs for people experiencing homelessness.
The results of Denver Day Works are promising so far, according to city staff. The city and its nonprofit partner, Bayaud Enterprises, have placed 62 people into longer-term positions at 42 different employers, including the city itself.
One crew, for example, is working to replace roughly 30,000 lighting fixtures in the Denver Central Library. The project is expected to deliver $2.5 million in savings over the life of the new, energy-efficient lights.
And for the three men working the project, it’s a chance to earn nearly $15 an hour, eight hours a day, for six months.
“I was looking for income. I was expecting to show up and to put in a day’s work and get compensated,” said Michael Brodsky, 53.
He worked for 15 years as a software engineer for a research and development company, but the end of a relationship and a physical injury put him out of housing two years ago.
On Friday morning, before the library opened, he and his teammates were quickly working their way through the fifth floor with drills and step ladders. They’ve already finished much of the first floor, replacing pale yellow lights with bright, white LEDs.
The idea for the project came from Kevin Gallegos, the facilities maintenance technician for the central branch.
Gallegos had worked on smaller projects with Denver Day Works and figured this long, labor-intensive process would be another good opportunity.
“I’ll teach them everything they need to be taught, but I need to know they can use tools,” he had told the program’s coordinators.
The library conducted background checks, but he had “lots of doubts,” he said. “For one, I didn’t know if they would show up to work on time. I didn’t know if after the first paycheck they’d come back.”
Now they’re working smoothly through about 80 fixtures per day.
Brodsky and many of the other participants started the program working in temp crews at Denver Parks, spreading mulch and doing other works.
Over the months, they’ve worked their way into more and more longer-term jobs. Other employers include King Soopers, Napa Auto Parts, Colorado Petroleum, Revolution Foods, the Denver Zoo and Connections Staffing — a total of 41 private companies in all.
“Let’s meet them where they are, literally where they live, and ask them to put themselves out there and look at these employment opportunities,” said Todd Jorgensen, who oversees the project as a deputy director of Denver Human Services.
“While doing that, we have the opportunity to provide some other wraparound services … On the lunch hour, we can have conversations about financial literacy, food, medical needs.”
The program is still in a kind of prototype mode, and the city will decide whether to extend it based on this year’s results. The city is paying about $400,000 to administer Denver Day Works — read our analysis of that spending here and here.
So far, they’re ahead of the goal of placing at least 49 people into jobs. And 19 people to date have stayed with the program for at least three months, while at least two have found housing.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Jorgensen said. But a quarterly report notes that the participants have challenging situations.
“The average participant has a serious criminal background, is experiencing homelessness, has not worked a meaningful job in months if not years, is suffering from untreated mental health issues and often is using some kind of substance as a means of self-medicating, and has no means of transportation beyond mass transit,” the managers wrote.
For Rick Singer, 59, it was as if a door opened. He had quit drinking on his 57th birthday and felt healthy enough and ready to get back to work, he said.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore, being with the elements and the cold, the wintertime,” he said, a bundle of wires in his hand. “I just started making a better life.”
Singer has recently found housing through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, he said. Brodsky currently shares an apartment that he describes as a temporary situation. Bayaud has helped him find permanent housing that he expects to get into soon.
Brodsky warns, though, that Denver Day Works may not be a silver bullet, especially as the housing market continues to price more people out.
“This has been great. I’m blessed that this has happened. … It’s just that all the resources that have been poured into this, all the PR and attention is great, but we’re just three guys,” he said of his crew.
“What about the 5,000 other guys?”
Anyone looking for work through the program can call Bayaud Enterprises at 303-830-6885.
Correction: This story originally cited a Denver Day Works report that said 70 people had been placed into jobs. In fact, it was 62 people; some have been placed twice. Also, the program aims to place 49 individuals in long-term jobs.