Richard May has always looked way sharp. He attended job interviews in a two-piece suit, and frequently came to the Coalition on Homelessness—his workfare site—in a button-up shirt and slacks. Nor was his professionalism limited to his dress, as attested by his voluminous (literally—it filled a volume) résumé. This, perhaps, isn’t the image the continuously-employed portion of the public has of the average recipient of cash assistance.
The welfare deform that upended social aid programs in the United States during the Clinton administration and the Gingrich Congress forced people in San Francisco and elsewhere in the country to spend a certain number of hours every week doing menial labor during hours that they could have been taking care of their children or health, or looking for work. At one point, Richard’s only option while receiving cash aid would have been to sweep streets for his monthly check.
“I had some issues that I needed to kind of work out, and had I been just sweeping the streets, I wouldn’t have had a chance to work on those things—specifically self-image… Everybody knows that when you don’t have a job and you identify yourself with what you do, if you don’t have a job, then there’s something lacking—or at least you feel that way—and you begin to question your self-worth… ‘Maybe I deserved this situation.’ And while intellectually that was something that maybe I knew wasn’t true, it helped to have outside confirmation that [that wasn’t true], and that’s something that I got here. I was able to feel useful, people were nice to me… and everyone here is very polite, and even on their bad days they try to show respect to everybody.”
“This was my second time on GA [General Assistance—county cash assistance], and previously to this I wasn’t aware that there were other opportunities: I was just told that… if I was going to get GA, that I needed to sweep the streets. So that’s what I did, before… When I found out that this was one of the alternatives, I jumped at the chance, and I’m so glad that I did.”
Very soon, other workfare workers will not have that chance. On January 31, the Coalition on Homelessness, Hospitality House, the Mission Cultural Center, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the San Francisco Food Bank were shut down by the Human Services Agency (HSA) as Alternative Workfare sites, and will not be available to new applicants. Current workfare workers will be permitted to continue their contracts at these sites until July 1, at which point they will have to switch assignments.
The official reason that HSA will shut down the sites is that they do not fit into the workfare programs principles, which include to:
“Preserve programs and services that meet basic human needs: housing/shelter, food and nutrition, access to health care, income support, and protection/safety.”
It’s very difficult to see how, for example, the Food Bank or Hospitality House does not meet this principle. But after the cut, workfare workers are most likely to be sent to clean streets for the Department of Public Works (DPW) or buses for MUNI.
There’s a certain sad irony in this: Once upon a time, these street- and bus-cleaning positions were real City jobs with decent compensation and standard benefits. Their replacement by workfare workers is a flipped bird at organized labor which causes some people to refer to these workfare assignments as “scabfare.” But the irony plays out in this: Workfare is supposed to help prepare GA recipients for long-term employment after cash aid. But the only jobs that the DPW and MUNI cleaning gigs prepare workers for no longer exist, as they’ve been replaced by workfare.
San Francisco government has no systemic qualms about catch 22s, and seems to delight in sending social service recipients running in Möbius strips, but this is a case where HSA may have an angle: The City department gets paid by MUNI for every workfare worker it sends to clean buses, and it may be renegotiating its contract with DPW along the same lines. Unsurprisingly, the people doing the cleaning do not see any of this money. The system has been compared more than once to prison labor.
The difference being that workfare workers have had a choice: Certainly, for some people cleaning the streets is an opportunity to work outside—a greater value in their personal estimates than what they would get from working in an office. But others have preferred working at non-profit offices to gain skills in computer use or other standard office technology, public relations, or a host of other areas.
Richard attributes his current employment to the time he spent at the Coalition: “If I were outside with a broom in my hand, I would still be on GA… I know the last time I [swept the streets], I remember one particular day I was doing Chinatown, and Chinatown can be pretty messy. I had to be there at seven in the morning. It was in the winter so it was dark, and it was pouring rain. And I felt really bad about myself: ‘I deserve this.’”
Sanda Urban, who first did workfare and later volunteered at the Coalition for eight months, also credits her workfare assignment with helping her find work. She has no objection to street-sweeping, but believes that the alternative workfare program gave her options that better fit with her long-term employment goals: “I volunteered in resource development, which partially was grant writing, and then I coordinated an event, so those were skills that I was more than happy to add to my résumé.”
“For people who are out of work for a long time this is a great starting point because you build relationships, you build a network, you learn about things, you acquire new skills that you need, you build your résumé.”
Workfare workers at multiple of the sites that HSA plans to close have begun organizing to oppose the closures. Currently, workers are requesting a meeting with HSA Director Trent Rhorer, and are preparing video interviews with workers at the various sites to explain their work assignments and their comparative value to street sweeping for assignees personal goals.