When Kristy Yates’ daughter passed away in 2010, Yates sank into a deep depression and alcoholism that led to a drunken driving arrest. After a slew of health issues and losing all three of her jobs, the Fort Worth, Texas, resident became homeless and ended up checking in at the Presbyterian Night Shelter.
Yates’ new address made it hard to get hired. But after two months of living in the shelter, she learned about Clean Slate, and her life has changed since.
Toby Owen, CEO of the shelter, had long hoped to establish a social enterprise that would address homelessness in Fort Worth. When the city gave the shelter a $50,000 grant, Clean Slate was born.
Launched in fall 2015, Clean Slate hires guests living in the night shelter as janitors and street sweepers.
The project offers Fort Worth’s homeless population an opportunity to obtain financial security and ultimately find a permanent home. While not a foolproof answer to homelessness, Owen believes it’s a step in the right direction.
“There’s not one silver bullet that’s going to end homelessness,” Owen said. Still, he said, Clean Slate does a good job of helping the homeless people who come through the night shelter.
Kirsten Ham, the director of Clean Slate, defines the program, often called a social enterprise, as a business that seeks to employ homeless people.
“It’s truly just starting a business where your mission is equally as important as your revenue,” Ham said.
In addition to staffing residents to street sweeping and janitorial work, Clean Slate provides contract employees to multiple locations across Fort Worth, such as office buildings or churches, for various kinds of jobs.
Yates started off in janitorial work, but now she works in the shelter as a client-service specialist, giving new guests the rundown and helping with their transition from street to sheltered living.
“I may be that one employee they can confide in,” Yates said. “To be able to get somebody through a difficult time is very rewarding.”
Ham said Clean Slate employs about 50 people per week. Interest in the program has increased so much that the shelter has had to set aside time on Mondays and Wednesdays for candidate interviews with Clean Slate’s success coach, who handles the training of new employees.
Clean Slate’s employees also work with a case manager from the Presbyterian Night Shelter, who designs a course of action so they can succeed in their jobs and eventually move into their own homes.
The case managers are also responsible for helping employees recover from an addiction or offering support for mental illness.
Addiction and mental illness don’t preclude anyone from gaining employment with the program, though. Owen said, “That has no bearing on their employment.”
The idea to develop programs targeted at employing the homeless gained traction with a project in Albuquerque that paid panhandlers to clean up litter near the highway. Other cities such as Portland, Maine, and Lexington, Kentucky, began implementing similar work programs.
Owen said the Fort Worth program focuses on building a strong foundation for guests to successfully end their homelessness – something that a day job doesn’t do as well on its own. In fact, a job might not provide any stable foundation at all.
“They want what I call walk-around money to spend how they want,” Owen said. “Often, it’s not a positive thing they’re spending it on.”
Clean Slate employees also receive benefits typical for full-time jobs, such as vacation and health insurance. While the goal is to provide an opportunity for the shelter’s guests to leave the program and resume independent living, it doesn’t limit how long employees can work in the program, unlike some other job services offered to homeless people, which focus on day labor or shorter-term contracts.
Even if employees eventually work their way out of the shelter, they’re still entitled to jobs with Clean Slate. “It’s a bona fide job that comes with benefits,” Owen said.
In fact, more than half of the employees who participated in those social enterprises had a job a year later, according to research conducted by the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund.
The opportunity to turn homelessness around has led to the operation’s rapid growth.
Clean Slate’s budget has grown in three years from its $50,000 grant to about $1 million.
The program earns most of its income from fundraising and maintaining multiple work contracts in Fort Worth. Owen hopes to expand Clean Slate’s reach into moving companies or provide groundskeeping and lawn care to keep up with demand for the company’s services.
While Clean Slate gives the homeless a chance to rebuild their lives, Yates said, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Living in the shelter requires working with many different personality types, which can often prove challenging. Yates also described feeling uncomfortable being “brand new and female” when she first came to the shelter. New guests have to sacrifice privacy and independence when they move in.
“Nothing happens overnight,” Yates said. “Everything is a process, but they do work with you.”
Yates left the shelter and has been living independently for 13 months – a milestone she attributes to her work in Clean Slate. She said the program was a blessing when nobody else would hire her after her conviction.
“It’s possible to work from the ground up. Just don’t give up hope,” Yates said.
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