An army of orange-clad crews has been scrubbing graffiti, steaming the streets clean, and planting trees in the Mission District over the past few weeks.

They aren’t, however, all city workers.

Many of them were parking and traffic violators sent by Project 20 to pay down their fines by volunteering hours with the Department of Public Works. Once used primarily by nonprofits, Project 20 volunteers have increasingly been put to work sweeping streets, cleaning up graffiti and picking up trash.  Project 20 organizers said some volunteers are working on initiatives like this month’s “Mission Super Eco-Blitz.”

“Volunteers provide a strong workforce for us,” said the department’s spokesperson, Shih-wei Lu. “They provide us with a good amount of hours. It frees up our staff to do other things.”

Christine Falvey from the Department of Public Works said the traffic offenders and volunteers don’t replace staff, but “add to what we can accomplish.”

With a $2.7 million cut from public work’s street cleaning budget this year, resulting in the layoffs of 24 street cleaners and 15 arborists, the department has turned to volunteer programs to minimize the impact of the budgetary crisis.

For unions such as Local 261, which filed a grievance with public works in May this year, the move means less stable blue-collar jobs. A letter to the city posted on the union’s website states that 30 of their general laborers would see, “a reduction of their workweek from 40 to 20 hours.”

For traffic offenders, like Chelsea Boyle who is working to pay off $900 in parking tickets, Project 20 provides a much-needed alternative to writing a check. “Initially I was nervous about sweeping streets,” said Boyle, “but it hasn’t been that bad. At least now I can pay off my fines.”

Project 20 has been in the Bay Area for more than 30 years, and has been managed by the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, a privately funded nonprofit, since the early 1980s.

Parking fines are paid at a rate of $6 per hour of community service, and moving violations are repaid at a rate of $10 per hour. In addition, clients pay an administrative fee of $1 for every hour worked.

Planting trees along Mission Street. (Department of Public Works)

Prior to 2004, Project 20 focused on providing volunteers to the nonprofit community. However, as the city looked for savings, the program changed its policy, requiring participants to volunteer at least half their time with public works, a move which Deputy Director Richard Rendon says, “came down from city hall.”

“It was quite a change in the beginning,” said Rendon. “But instead of cutting back the program or doing away with it altogether, we tried to work with the city.”

As a result, Project 20 volunteers have had to adjust to more physically demanding manual labor.

The shift has had a noticeable effect on the program, which, according to Executive Director William Leong, now serves around 450 residents per month — 85 percent of whom are under the age of 55 — down by about two thousand people annually since the change took place.

Southern Exposure Director Courtney Fink has noticed the difference. “It used to be that if we needed 10 people for a project we could just call up Project 20,” she said. “Now we’re lucky if we get one person a month.”

Boyle said another factor affecting people’s ability to work with nonprofits is the ease with which someone can sign up to work with public works.

“They’ll give you names of nonprofits that they work with in your area,” said Boyle. “But it’s up to you to do all the legwork, call them up, find a placement, set up your hours. With public works you just show up in the morning and they do all the rest.”

Boyle has worked 24 of the 160 hours in her contract — all with public works — sweeping streets with a broom and dustbin. Like most people, she works on Sundays to take advantage of a double-time incentive program, another option which isn’t offered for work outside the department.

Despite this, some volunteers move on to work with nonprofits in their communities after their public works requirement is fulfilled.

“Galería de la Raza has been helped tremendously by Project 20 volunteers,” said Program Director Marc Picante. “I believe the volunteers get a lot out of the program themselves. They feel good about the work they have done and often offer to volunteer again even after their Project 20 hours are done.”

The program is open to anyone, regardless of income or background. “We get people from all walks of life, from homeless people to the very wealthy,” said Project 20 Operations Chief Candi Yee. “The one thing they have in common is a desire to give something back to their community.”

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Born and raised in Seal Beach, California, Heather Duthie studied Political Science and Community Studies as an undergraduate. She went on to work on a number of documentary films and for Link Television. She has lived in the Mission District for the past 5 years, and currently covers government for Mission Loc@l.

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  1. There was once apon a time in San Francisco, around the 1950s, where there were no parking meters, no green and yellow traffic signs, no seat belts, and the speed limits were based on the safe driving speed in California , or maximum of 65 MPH.

    People did not lock their doors, and milk was left at the door. There were fewer prisons, fewer laws, fewer politicians, and
    governmaent was our friend.

  2. It’s true. My friend filed for worker’s compensation on the first day of a job. I believe that if one of those ‘volunteers’ gets hurt by the machinery, the city will be liable because they have a stated rate of pay.
    Even if you have casual workers, such as a babysitter, or you didn’t ask the babysitter to even touch a lawn mower or heavy item, if they are hurt on your property – they are entitled to worker’s compensation

  3. How can everyone possibly live with themselves being so negative? Slave labor? give me a break! Instead of paying a city worker $15 an hour to clean the streets these people are doing it for essentially $6 and $10, and if they want to get out of it, they can just pay the ticket and get on with their lives. Obviously some of them don’t have the means, so maybe they shouldn’t be breaking traffic laws on the already dangerous streets of SF

  4. I think it’s a good idea. The City gets needed work done, and the offenders work off their debt and learn a good lesson. I do have concerns about city workers, but they’ve had a good ride for quite a long time; and city payrolls are bloated.

  5. This is an excellent concept. Monentary fines mean little to many people. Helping clean the city will instill some pride in people who otherwise take for granted advantages of the city. Offenders have many alternatives to volunteer work opportunities,or pay the monetary fine. This is not forced labor. And these are not criminals who require rigorous supervision. It offends me that unions are sueing over the program – they’d rather see the city go into bankruptcy to protect a few jobs that can’t be supported financially, and lose many more jobs in the end, than work postively work within the constraints of a city budget. Budget issues affect all governnment agencies across the country right now, and services are being cut back all around. The choices are hard.
    Sacrifices need to be made on all levels. How much would saving 30 Public Works jobs affect the overall health care opportunities provided by the city if it was a zero sum game. The comments above, so far, are pretty selfish, if not out-right ignorant.

  6. $2.7 million dollars cut and 39 people who would have been spending their money in the Bay Area as well as paying taxes have lost their jobs. $2.7 million. How many ambulance rides for street drunks and junkies is that? Once again, the coddling of people who have thrown their lives away on booze and drugs are costing the area in far many more ways than the filth they generate in their sidewalk “camps”.

  7. Maybe instead of parking violaters the city should grab up all those “homeless” folks and welfare folks and put them to work.

  8. Why traffic offenders? Why not chain-gang up all the dregs in SF County Jail?

    City and County of SF always hardballs the honest and softballs the dangerous.

    If you want to get out of street cleanup, just shoot somebody. Better make sure you are also an illegal alien and member of MS-13. You’ll get housing, welfare and culturally sensitive programs crafted for you… and not charged with the murder(s), either.

  9. “Parking fines are paid at a rate of $6 per hour of community service, and moving violations are repaid at a rate of $10 per hour”

    Not only are these slave wages, I can’t wait to see what happens when some idiot San Francisco driver runs over one of these non-city employees, and that person sues the sh** out of the city!!

  10. “We get people from all walks of life, from homeless people to the very wealthy,” Yeh, the very wealthy will volunteer to clean for $10. Sounds about right.

  11. Uh, isn’t this just “avoiding-prison labor”, not “volunteers”? After all, they can’t pay their fines and the only alternative *is* prison.

    Some would call this involuntary servitude. The fact is they’re using these people to do piece work for the State for “free”, ignoring of course the cost of enforcement, registration, etc. At the same time, they’re firing workers who do the job every day and these people end up on the dole.

    The State – pennywise and pound foolish.

  12. Western society always seeks ways to enslave as many people as possible.
    I guess the orange vests are being used in place of sewn on yellow stars.

  13. Why the differential in rates? From a harm perspective, a moving violation is more dangerous – hence the points on your license. Why should these people get a “deal”?