Kneeling down behind a bush in Platt Gardens—a cluster of flowers, foliage and water features sandwiched between the Boise Depot and a grassy vista overlooking Capitol Boulevard—Scott Austin was busy pulling weeds. Between the rustling sound of the shrubs as he pulled and the hum of a nearby riding lawnmower, Austin's voice was barely audible as he told the story of how, before joining a Boise Parks and Recreation work crew at the beginning of May, he hadn't seen a paycheck in almost a year. Austin felt a stint of homelessness had made him invisible to potential employers.
"Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you don't have wants and needs and aspirations like other people," he said.
Austin's fortunes are changing. His work in Platt Gardens is part of a pilot program, the Interfaith Sanctuary Work Program with Boise Parks and Recreation, that employs sanctuary guests on Parks and Rec seasonal work crews for $9.25 per hour. Austin and others in the program do everything from weeding and pruning to lawn mowing. The aim is to build up resumes and savings accounts, and ultimately to help people experiencing homelessness find permanent jobs, transportation and housing.
The partnership, which started May 1 and will last until Parks and Rec phases out seasonal employees Tuesday, Oct. 31, circumvents the deep challenges faced by people seeking employment after periods of not having a fixed address or getting paychecks. Interfaith Sanctuary has helped participants in the program obtain Social Security numbers, identification and bank accounts, thereby fulfilling City of Boise hiring requirements.
"It was just the right match. Parks and Rec crew are so nice, it works so well, and our guests really like being in the parks," said Interfaith Sanctuary Shelter Director Jodi Peterson.
Austin said when the seasonal job winds to a close at the end of October, he will seek out other, similar work, and wouldn't mind returning to Parks and Rec in the spring.
"I don't foresee myself being unemployed very long after this program," Austin said.
Another participant, Andrew Rule, leaned on a rake that looked like a twig in his strong hands. He joined the pilot project since mid-August, and before that, it had been "a couple months" since his own last paycheck. A Boise native, Rule held down a number of jobs, but was unable to save money. Low wages, lack of security, a limited set of work skills and other factors meant he couldn't make ends meet, and for the last 2 ½ years he has stayed at Interfaith Sanctuary.
Seasonal work has been stimulating for him.
"Around every corner there's something to do," he said. "I was stuck in a loop, and I was, like, 'Enough!'" Rule has learned essentials of Idaho horticulture, and the steady pay, he said, is helping him "get a head start."
"I just want my life back," Rule said. "My own place, transportation, steady employment."
The program started with a single crew working 30 hours per week, but participants showed their supervisors they were motivated, and their shifts were soon extended. Several participants dropped out but additional Interfaith guests rushed to fill the gaps. Currently there are two crews with five workers each, with a handful of other potential participants in reserve. Several people in the program have already secured housing or transportation of their own.
One of the crew chiefs managing employees from the shelter is Andrea Wurtz, a 10-year veteran of Parks and Rec with three years experience managing seasonal laborers. She has joined with her current crop of workers on standard fare like weeding and pruning, but also post-flood Greenbelt repair and maintenance. Interfaith Sanctuary has kept her ranks filled with people "happy, willing and able to work."
"We show them the overall outcome. They need very little instruction to complete the task," she said.
In addition to a crew chief, every batch of workers in the program has a case manager, who serves as a kind of intermediary between participants and Parks and Rec. According to Parks and Rec Director Doug Holloway, the case managers provide much-needed structure and pre-employment services for participants.
"They have a very structured program in place," he said. "They ask their guests, 'If you want to be part of the work program, first thing you have to do is become part of their case management program, including how to get yourself set up in order to get a job.'"
On Wurtz's crew, the case manager is John Davis, who ensures participants get to and from the job site and have access to one provided meal per day. He knows each of the workers personally, and is on hand to satisfy ancillary needs and help with conflict resolution.
Davis has been with the Interfaith Sanctuary/Parks and Rec program since it began, and said rekindling faith between people who have experienced homelessness and employers can be a challenge, but one that's worthwhile to overcome.
"[Homeless people] don't have a lot of trust in employers or systems," he said. "We can rebuild a little bit of trust on their side. ... If we can offer them a little opportunity, we could really make their lives better."