Downtown Streets Team Invites You To Just Say Hi

Downtown Streets Team (DST,) the nonprofit organization which provides pathways out of homelessness through street cleaning and beatification, officially launched in San Francisco in March of 2016 with support from the City and Dolby Laboratories. Since then, DST team members have gained recognition for their service, work ethic and stewardship of public spaces in Civic Center, UN Plaza and parts of Market Street.

DTS on Launch Day in SF. Courtesy of DTS/Facebook

Founded in Palo Alto in 2005 by former Napster CEO Eileen Richardson, the organization has expanded its services to several other cities in the Bay Area, most recently Hayward and Novato. But San Francisco has proved to be unique. The volunteer team, capped at 24 at time of launch, filled up faster — just two weeks — than in any other city. Team members are recruited solely through peer outreach. Currently, DST is piloting an expansion in Union Square, and possibly other SF neighborhoods in the near future. In June alone, they properly disposed of 1,203 discarded needles and collected 23,100 gallons of debris, or 114 cubic yards worth, according to DST San Francisco Project Director Brandon Davis. With help from DST staff members who focus on connecting team members with resources, they were able to find full time employment for 2 members and temporary employment for 9 others. In addition, one team member secured housing.

It should be noted not every team member is living on the street. Gregory worked for Delta Airlines for nearly two decades and lives in a nearby residential hotel. He’s been with the SF team since its launch as is now a manager, which means he dons a blue shirt instead of yellow (team member) or green (team leader) during their morning routes, which happen Monday through Friday 8 am to noon. He says the San Francisco DST is comprised of people from every age group, ethnicity and background, including folks with disabilities. Asked what strikes him most about the team, he says “People go out of their way for each other. It’s like one big family. The biggest thing is respect.”

DTS team members stand behind Mayor Ed Lee for the launch of Sound Commons at UN Plaza. Photo: Epicenter-sf

Nowhere is that familial aspect most striking than at the Tuesday success meetings, held at 12:30pm at 65 9th Street. To become a team member, DST requires attendance, which secures a spot on a waitlist. Each Tuesday, names on the waitlist are called off. If the potential team member is present, they remain on the list, moving up as other names are removed, either by placement on a team or failure to attend or call in. With each name that responds in attendance, the entire room claps, heightening the potent sense of camaraderie. And just like a tight knit family, team members are quick to check one another if the rules aren’t followed (no phones, no cross talk) during the meeting. Also part of the meeting, team members nominate peers to receive recognition for hard work and other distinctions. Staff shares good news about the team, free events, and other perks donated from the community. On one visit, Epicenter-sf learned of several members receiving donated bicycles. Another time, they were treated to a city tour upon one of the ubiquitous double decker buses.

Tuesday is also payday. Those who have completed their commitment to working every day receive compensation in the form of gift cards to be redeemed at places like Safeway and Target.

DST and Dolby prepare for a volunteer shift. Photo: Epicenter-sf

Lisa used to be a nanny and would like to work her way back to that, but acknowledges she needs to work up to it. Currently, she stays in a shelter. In a short time, she advanced to become a team leader and wears, along with the green shirt, a proud smile. One of her favorite things about working with DST is connecting with other homeless people. She talks about how she engages them, asks them about their plans for the day and invites them to the meetings. “We’re good people, we just fell down,” she says. While she acknowledges it’s not always easy to be in charge and enforce rules, the fact that she’s been able to advance is giving her confidence. “I feel like this is getting me there.”

Kerry, an SF native who retired from SF Muni says the program is helping people find their way again. “A lot of people experiencing homelessness just lose their way, their work ethic. It’s like Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall. This is helping them pull themselves together again.”

Beyond strengthening the bond between team members, DST is bridging community with corporate partners and other citizens, driven it seems, by the desire to dispel myths about those who suffer from homelessness while eroding the social walls that lead to isolation.

Randy from Dolby and Pualette, formerly with DST is now employed as a Community Guide with the Central Market Community Benefit District. Photo: Epicenter-sf

On a Wednesday morning in late May, Epicenter-sf observed as a group of employees from Dolby Laboratories (#DolbyCares) stood outside the San Francisco Main Public Library where they were greeted by DST. Dressed in the same shade of yellow shirts, the two groups were about to embark on a trash collecting expedition. The groups introduced each other, every person calling out their first name. More important than worrying about every little piece of litter, a DST representative reminded them, was the opportunity to talk and get to know one another, to make personal connections. Throughout the morning, volunteers from Dolby and DST shared stories, drawing from a diverse set of commonalities, both tragic (“she survived breast cancer like my mom”) and joyful (“we both love cooking”) to build upon the community fabric essential to DST innovative model.

Since that time, DST has garnered media attention as well as inquiry from a number of content producers such as Medium.com (which engaged participants and staff in a story telling workshop) and Stories Behind the Fog.

When team members were asked what was the most demoralizing aspect of homelessness, their response was one often cited by those who experience homelessness firsthand, but few people in the general public think about. It had to do with a lack of acknowledgement.

DST on the job. Photo: Epicenter-sf

Building on a desire for communication and looking to erode the ostracizing otherness felt by those experiencing homelessness, the DST team has launched the Just Say Hi campaign. Every week throughout the twelve-week campaign, which launched August 8th, a new blog will appear on the website as a way to share their stories, encourage communication and build connectivity.

From the inaugural blog: “In our current state of affairs, it’s easy to stop seeing un-housed community members as people, and let them blend into “the homeless.” It takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that homelessness is an experience, not an identity. When it comes to an issue so large, in a place so heavily entrenched, it can be hard to know what to do. We’re asking folks to start by just saying hi.”

Stay tuned to the DST website for new stories as they appear every Monday for the next eight weeks. Catch up on volumes I through IV by clicking here. A mini documentary is also in the works.

On Tuesday, October 18, from 6–9pm, DST invites you to the Just Say Hi Launch Party, hosted at Zendesk, 1019 Market Street. We’ll keep you updated on details as they become available.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for the team, and if you can, just say hi. They love to hear from the community. If you’re interested in volunteering, attending a weekly success meeting, or supporting DST work in SF, contact Brandon@streetsteam.org.