Downtown Streets Team

Downtown Streets Team is an organization dedicated to providing solutions to the struggles of the homeless population.

Photos by Kailee Correll

Photos by Kailee Correll


A city is often considered  a complex ensemble of streets and overlooking structures, yet, there are distinct, imperceptible social boundaries that divide the population into two primary factions. This dividing line is not drawn by race or gender, but rather the issue of housing. In every urban community, homeless people line the sidewalk, lying inside flimsy canvas tents or pushing shopping carts piled high with their sole possessions.

With nothing more than a glance from the corner of our eyes, the same thoughts fill our minds each time we pass. We start to wonder: what do homeless people do each day? And how did they find themselves in this situation?

Larger cities, such as San Francisco, serve as a common place for homeless people to find shelter. Outlets within these cities include facilities that provide restrooms and other hygienic resources to the homeless; additionally these outlets are prime panhandeling locations. As the homeless population grows each year, a Northern California organization works to find a solution for this situation. The Downtown Streets Team works to minimize the number of homeless people in the Bay Area, providing them with jobs cleaning streets in municipal areas and in return temporary, safe places to live. The organization serves as a stepping stone to find a stable way to live, work and ultimately lead a better, more empowered life. Generally, the program achieves an average of eight employment placements and ten people housed per month. These teams exist throughout the Bay Area and work together, not only to change lives, but to give back to the environment through various group-based work programs.

The organization has many locations, including sites in Palo Alto and San Jose. When walking down University Avenue, you may see some of the team members sweeping the streets or cleaning parking garages. They are easy to identify, with vibrant yellow shirts and neon vests, labeled with the Downtown Streets Team logo on the front right pocket. Some of their current projects include working at Elizabeth F. Gamble Gardens, the Downtown Food Closet and various other locations in downtown Palo Alto. The group also works closely with the Palo Alto Police Department. Driven by the motto “Ending homelessness through the dignity of work,” the Downtown Streets Team maintains their promise by helping the community, reducing the number of people living on the streets and increasing their members’ sense of purpose.

Since their foundation in 2005, the Downtown Streets Team has had an immense impact on its members, securing over 1,500 homes and jobs for their participants. With the jobs they have found through the program, team members have earned a total of $3.3 million dollars since 2011. Not only has this program provided long term stability and empowerment for its team members, but it also works towards helping the community. The team is one of the primary reasons behind the recent 50 percent decrease of crime in Palo Alto, as well as the 75 percent decrease in panhandling.

The team has also been successful in their work towards cleaning up the neighborhoods, creeks and city streets of their communities. Team members from across the Bay Area have swept over 88,000 tons of debris away from the urban waterways that lead into the San Francisco Bay. Additionally, members from San Jose have helped clean up mounds of garbage and abandoned household items from the local homeless encampments.

Another environmental issue that provides work opportunities, is the improper disposal of cigarette butts. Members of the San Rafael team began to pick up cigarettes off the streets and have influenced other cities to follow in their footsteps. According to a team member, this is a “win win win” scenario, as the environment and the surrounding community benefit from these clean ups. The last ‘win’ is reserved for the previously homeless people who have been given a second chance to show they are making a positive change in their lives.

Gypsy: The path to becoming homeless is different for everyone. Most aren’t able to earn enough money to ensure their ability to take care of themselves in a healthy manner. This, in turn, leads to time spent sitting on the street asking passer-bys for loose change. Brandy Blumenschein, commonly known as “Gypsy,” remembers his experiences asking for money on the streets. “I’ve been homeless for a long time, and I’ve made money [by sitting] in front of the 7-Eleven and asking people for change,” Gypsy said. However, begging for money in this manner did not cover his cost of living. “I would sit out there for six hours or more and get anywhere between five and forty dollars depending on the day,” he said. With this unsteady source of income, Gypsy was unable to live a healthy and secure life. This state of economic insecurity resulted in a few minor criminal offenses and court appointed community service. Through the court, he found the Downtown Streets Team and joined the welcoming community.

The Downtown Streets Team provided him with a stipend, consisting of gift cards for convenience stores and gas stations. This form of economic support means that Gypsy is no longer worried about how much money he will collect out on the streets. In addition to the stipend, Gypsy is now attending classes at Foothill College. “They pay for my books so that I can go to school,” Gypsy said. So far, the experience has positively affected him, as he is now able to buy necessities, such as textbooks and school supplies.

The Downtown Streets program has allowed him to live without economic or housing concerns, and provides him a sense of pride. “It shows the community that I’m changing and progressing as a person,” Gypsy said. “When you go out there and help the team clean the streets, it makes you feel good and [like a] productive [member of] society. It gives you a real sense of purpose.”