From Panhandling to a Paycheck: How Day Labor can Provide Opportunity to Philly’s Homeless

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Six months ago, Duncan Gaskins was homeless, living on the street by the Camden waterfront, desperate for a reason not to backslide to the time when he had found comfort in drugs and security in a gang.

Then, an outreach worker made him an offer: a day’s work, and $75 in his pocket.

Today, Gaskins, 54, has an apartment, a part-time job with Camden County, and a sense of possibility. “It’s no looking back,” he said recently. “I had lost all hope. Through this program, I have renewed hope. It’s still a struggle, but through this, it’s doable.”

That hope-renewing break came in the form of Work Now, a day-labor program the county launched a year and a half ago. Like at least a dozen others in cities around the country, it’s inspired by an initiative Albuquerque, N.M., created in 2015 to combat panhandling by challenging people holding “will work for food” signs to do just that — all while eliminating the barriers associated with more traditional workforce-development programs, like requirements to pass a drug test or present an ID.

Next up: Starting April 1, Philadelphia will get its own day-work program, with a few unique twists.

It’s the first of its kind to offer work making public art, rather than picking up trash, pulling weeds, or other manual labor. It’s the first to enlist peer specialists, individuals who themselves have serious mental illnesses or histories of substance abuse and are trained to support others. And, unlike many other day-work programs around the country — some of which launched in cities like Lexington, Ky., and Portland, Maine, after outright bans on panhandling were overturned in court — organizers insist it is not intended to clear the streets but to offer an opportunity for those who choose to take it.

The Philadelphia program is also unusual in that it is not, for the most part, publicly funded. It will be run by Mural Arts Philadelphia and the nonprofit Mental Health Partnerships, with two years of funding — $300,000 — from philanthropy, primarily the Barra and Sheller foundations. It will operate five days a week, paying 10 workers a day $50 in cash to paint a mural in the SEPTA concourse.

“We want people to see their potential and assign a value to what they’re doing, and try to shift how they see themselves psychologically,” Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said.

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