Amherst homeless shelter guests find work downtown
Michael Schroder of Amherst sweeps away dead leaves downtown Thursday morning. Schroder is part of a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who are hired by the Amherst Business Improvement District to clean and maintain sidewalks and walkways. Purchase photo reprints »
Michael Schroder of Amherst sweeps away dead leaves downtown last week. Schroder is part of a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who are hired by the Amherst Business Improvement District to clean and maintain sidewalks and walkways.
JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
Michael Schroder of Amherst is part of a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who are hired by the Amherst Business Improvement District to clean and maintain sidewalks and walkways. Purchase photo reprints »
Michael Schroder of Amherst grabs some street cleaning supplies Thursday morning at the Loose Goose cafe. Schroder is part of a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who are hired by the Amherst Business Improvement District to clean and maintain sidewalks and walkways.
JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — As he sweeps the sidewalk in front of businesses on North Pleasant Street, carefully getting his broom beneath benches and into crevices along the edges, Michael Schroeder observes how clean the town center looks.
“You should have seen it a couple of weeks ago,” Schroeder said. “It was terrible.”
As part of a three-man work crew, Schroeder, who is homeless, and Marcus McGrigg, who recently was too, have filled more than 500 garbage bags with leaves, trash and debris from streets and sidewalks, parking lots and properties throughout the commercial district.
They are being paid between $10 and $15 an hour as part of a joint effort by the Amherst Business Improvement District and Jerald “Jerry” Gates, who serves on the board of directors at the Amherst homeless shelter and owns several buildings in town. The program is an expansion of one Gates has run the last two years at the shelter, called Shelter to Work, which has put guests to work on various projects at the church and at his properties.
So far, eight people have been part of the program, with six graduating to other jobs.
The BID is providing about $10,000 a year for downtown cleanup work, which covers wages, equipment and supplies, and represents between 15 and 20 percent of its beautification budget, said BID director Alex Krogh-Grabbe. Gates agreed to add the workers to his staff and handle the payroll and insurance.
“Because they are keeping things looking clean, we feel that’s a worthwhile investment,” he said.
While the community benefits from an attractive downtown, for Schroeder and McGrigg the work is a source of income and dignity and a way to move toward stabilizing their housing situations.
“It’s a good trade-off for getting a place to stay,” said Schroeder, who has been living overnight at Craig’s Place, the homeless shelter at the First Baptist Church. He lost his home when he was unable to make his mortgage payments following his wife’s death earlier this year, he said.
McGrigg, who spent last winter at the shelter but moved into temporary housing this fall, appreciates the work.
“It’s good for a lot of people to get this experience,” he said. “If you last long enough, you can put it on your resume and get to do other things.”
Gates said many guests who come to the overnight shelter ask how they can get jobs.
“This is providing good work for them, and a little extra money,” Gates said.
He said the pilot downtown cleanup began a few weeks ago as a way to determine how much work needs to be done. The tasks so far have included raking leaves, picking up trash and sweeping debris.
Gates said some of the areas of downtown haven’t been thoroughly cleaned in many years.
Krogh-Grabbe said the workers have removed 60 to 70 bags full of leaves from Realignment Park, the area near the corner of North Pleasant and Hallock streets, and about the same number from in front of Mount Pleasant Apartments near Kendrick Park. “They’ve done a great job,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
The work is expected to slow down over the holidays, with plans now to do weekly eight-hour sweeps, perhaps beginning on Sunday mornings, when college students return from their intercession break. Krogh-Grabbe said if there is a two-person crew, they will spend four hours on the street doing this work, based on the needs from a trial run.
“The biggest component of this will be litter pickup, the paper plates, pizza boxes, water bottles and soda cans, that all are periodically on the edge of the sidewalks,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
The work crews may also do some snow removal and pretreating of sidewalks on an as-needed basis. The work has to supplement and not replace municipal services, said Krogh-Grabbe, who has talked to both Town Manager John Musante and Department of Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring to clarify the workers’ roles.
Jobs are tools
Hwei-Ling Greeney, who runs Amherst Community Connections, which provides financial assistance and counseling to homeless and low-income individuals, said moving people from the shelter back into the workforce has been one of the objectives.
“Productive citizens is always the goal, but always the way needs to be supported with tools,” Greeney said.
In this case, the tools are the jobs. The BID, Greeney said, provided a means of expanding and formalizing what Gates was already doing.
When the BID launched this year, Greeney got in touch with Krogh-Grabbe to see if there was a possibility of making this “empowerment work” available to current and former shelter guests.
“The idea is that there are people willing and able to work,” Greeney said. “This creates opportunities for them to get income.”
Her appeal was based on the BID’s goal of improving the downtown area coinciding with the needs of those she assists, she said.
“Keeping the downtown clean and spruced up attracts shoppers,” Greeney said.
Krogh-Grabbe said that in Boston the BID has Project Place, a program that trains homeless to work in the city. He said he has used that as a model for Amherst’s smaller-scale project.
Greeney meets with those who express interest and, if the individuals are determined to be the right fit, lets Gates know. Those selected meet with Greeney once a week to ensure they will stay on task.
Greeney said many of the people she sees at Amherst Community Connections are ambitious and understand that establishing a work history will make it easier to remain employed.
“Nothing will stop them except not being able to find work,” Greeney said.
Any organizations with projects suitable for program participants are welcome to contact her, she said.
Meanwhile, McGrigg said that now that he has found housing and is saving the money he earns, he wants to ensure he doesn’t have to return to the shelter.
For Schroeder, the interim work keeps him occupied.
“This is a way of getting money, and I don’t have to panhandle,” he said.