Three years ago, Amarillo, Texas, implemented a new program called Coming Home to address the increasing homeless population. Using a point in time count, city-coordinated volunteers sought out individuals living in locations not meant for human habitation during a 24-hour period. In January 2019, the count identified 774 individuals struggling with homelessness.
When the coming home program initially began, the goal was to serve 25 individuals identified as “chronically homeless,” according to Jason Riddlespurger, Amarillo’s community development director. Since then, Coming Home has served more than 130 homeless individuals and 100 households. Now the program is expanding its services through the new the Peer Reintegration Employment Partnership Academy.
“It was our desire to create a work program that mirrored the Coming Home program, particularly the role of the peer support specialist,” Riddlespurger explained. While Coming Home provides temporary emergency assistance for homeless individuals and case managers who help these individuals navigate assistance programs and provide transportation, it also provides peer support services. Clients are provided with mentors to support them and share their own path out of homelessness.
“The peer support specialist is committed to teaching and modeling independent living skills, proper housekeeping, job readiness and sound decision making,” he described.
Using this model, Riddlespurger stated: “We believed many of our previously homeless clients were experiencing barriers to maintaining a job. They struggled to be considered due to gaps in work history, criminal history, etc. To overcome these barriers, we wanted to create an atmosphere in which peer support specialists work alongside the clients so they could mentor and teach the characteristics of a successful employee.”
The PREP Academy, as part of the Coming Home program, utilizes the same peer support specialists. Those who participate in the academy are given jobs working for the city itself.
“To make the PREP Academy possible, we met with our assistant city managers, chief financial officer, human resources director and the parks and recreation director,” Riddlespurger said. “We brainstormed the idea, and everyone worked through the obstacles together.”
The idea involved the human resource department creating new policies to help clients in the new program if they struggled along the way. The city shows grace and forgiveness as clients work through their individual obstacles and encourages participants to use any setbacks as learning experiences.
The city council allocated funding through the American Rescue Plan, giving $250,000 to conduct the pilot program.
“It is our hope that the program is successful,” Riddlespurger said, “and that we will be able to move funding from the parks and recreation department to my department and continue providing the service.”
The initial clients chosen for the pilot program are all Coming Home program participants who have been in supportive housing, been successful in their transition to housing and expressed interest in returning to the workforce.
Parks and recreation jobs were specified for PREP Academy participants in part because, he explained, “historically, the parks and recreation department has had a difficult time filling positions to effectively clean and maintain the city parks.” Full trash bins and refuse thrown on the ground are common complaints of Amarillo citizens who frequent the parks. It is the goal that the areas serviced by the employees will become clean and a source of pride for the city of Amarillo.
Participants in the PREP Academy have taken on three large park areas thus far — Thompson Park, Elwood Park and Rails to Trails. Clients pick up trash, empty the trash bins, sanitize bathrooms and equipment and even shovel snow when the weather presents the need.
Each week the PREP Academy averages over 12.9 tons of trash removed from the parks. The work they do also allows other parks and recreation department employees to focus on previously neglected tasks.
Partners for the PREP Academy include the Hillside Christian Church North Grand Campus, Amarillo National Bank, Workforce Solutions Panhandle and Goodwill. Hillside has provided a large amount of support for the Coming Home program over the years, including providing space for participants to engage in educational classes and offering them daily lunch. The bank provided a free savings account to clients as well as financial literacy training. Between six and eight weeks of payroll and uniforms for the first 15 clients were provided through Workforce Solutions Panhandle, allowing the community development department to start the program and work through the challenges involved in starting a new program. Goodwill, the newest partner, will provide free training for participants.
Not all original pilot program participants are still with the program. While 11 participants started, only six remain. Some of the challenges seen with those who are no longer with the program include the tediousness of picking up trash and the physical difficulty of it for some individuals. Some participants were older or had medical issues that prevented them from succeeding at given tasks, while others struggled with sobriety and the city’s drug testing policy.
However, the city offered counseling and a second chance policy to those who failed. One participant who left the program successfully completed a rehabilitation program, has remained clean for 40 days and has been able to return to participate in the PREP Academy.
Once a participant leaves the program, they are replaced with the next person in line. The city partners with the Guyon Saunders Resource Center, the local low-barrier day shelter, to give interested individuals the chance to participate in the program. Those interested in participating in PREP are given the option to volunteer in keeping the center clean during the week to show each individual’s level of interest and dedication in being a prime candidate.
Recently, the city has started an effort to expand the pool of participants. Other agencies and individuals have also reached out to ask how they can participate in the program.
As the city receives the funding to increase the team, they will use this list of interested individuals.
“Depending on the success of the program,” Riddlespurger noted, “we will look to expand by adding more peer support supervisors, more participants and take on a larger number of parks.”
If another city is interested in using a similar program to help their homeless population, Riddlespurger has a few suggestions.
“The leading entity for this type of program must be empathetic to the overall goal and must look at this program through the eyes of the participant and with an attitude of ‘How can we make this work?'”
He also mentioned looking for areas in the city where there is an availability to put people to work.
While Amarillo’s strongest need was in the parks department, the city is also looking at other areas that could be included, such as custodial work. “We believe it is imperative that you have peer support specialists involved in this work,” he stressed. “They have been through the hardships of homelessness, addiction or mental health challenges. They have learned how to overcome these challenges and are passionate about helping others to do the same.
“When you are planning, it’s easy to find plenty of roadblocks and reasons you should plan for everything that could happen. I believe we would still be in the planning stages if we didn’t just make the decision to start the program and work through the challenges as they present. I have described it to my team that we are building an airplane while we are in the air. But for the most part, the difficulties have been minimal.”