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.
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.”