A handful of homeless residents in San Diego are going back to work thanks to a high school junior.
In 2017, Kevin Barber, 16, founded Wheels of Change, a pilot program that pays homeless men and women $11.50 an hour to clean city streets throughout San Diego. The city has embraced Barber’s program as a way to tackle its homeless crisis and beautify its public spaces.
Barber told CNN that he was inspired to create Wheels of Change after watching the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico describe a similar program in a TED Talk.
"It just looked really simple, and the [homelessness] statistics were staggering," Barber told CNN.
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Barber’s mother Carolyn, an emergency room physician, helped initiate the program with a $70,000 donation. That money has enabled a few residents of San Diego’s Alpha Project shelter to earn an income.
But Barber wants Wheels of Change to employ more of the people who signed up on its 100-person waiting list. So in February, he launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $80,000 for the street-cleaning program. As of Friday morning, the fundraiser had received about $6,300 toward its goal.
Several men and women who have participated in the program say it has been a boon for their wallets and their self-esteem.
“This is the first time I’ve worked in a while,” worker Dawn Caiazzo told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It feels good.”
In 2017, the US homeless population rose for the first time in seven years, with the highest surges coming in cities along the West Coast. San Diego County, where Barber lives, has the fourth highest homeless population in the US, a result of low wages and a lack of affordable housing, experts say.
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Programs like Wheels of Change have spread to cities across the US, including Ft. Worth, Texas and Chicago, Illinois. The jobs not only give individuals an opportunity to earn money, they also shred stereotypes about unmotivated homeless people.
“I get to give back to the community and have some extra money to get around,” Nichole Hill told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Being homeless makes you realize how it is, and you want to help other people.”