Bettie Cochran sits in the main room of Sister Jose Women's Center and runs her pink nails through her long red hair. After a night's sleep at the homeless shelter and a good breakfast, she's excited to spend the day working at the Pima Animal Care Center, as part of the Tucson Homeless Work Program, or HWP.
HWP started last December and pays people experiencing homelessness $10 an hour on-the-spot cash to clean up streets and neighborhoods for five hours a day, saving the taxpayers money and giving a boost to one of Tucson's most vulnerable communities.
The six women about to head to PACC eat breakfast and chat, excited about the day of work ahead. It's the second week the women's shelter and PACC have participated in HWP. For most of these women, it's their first time in the program, as there are more people who want to participate than positions.
This month, the program expanded from two days a week to three, accommodating more participants across the program. Six people can work a day, and each person can work two days a month, earning up to $600 tax free in a year.
Cochran participated in the program once before, through the Salvation Army, one of three shelters who selects participants. Three weeks ago, she spent the day picking trash up off the street.
"I really needed the money," she says. "I don't drink. I don't drive. I don't smoke cigarettes. So I live off of it really slowly."
Cochran is a recovering addict, with five years clean. She spends her money on basics like hygiene products and batteries for her radio. She also spent $15 on her nails.
Penny Buckley, Sister Jose's operations coordinator, says spending money on something expendable like a manicure helps the women feel human again.
"Maybe they'll go and buy a really nice meal because that's what they used to do. It's a reminder of who you used to be before this happened to you," she says. "Who knows what that did to her feelings as a human and as a woman."
The main reason women end up homeless is fleeing domestic violence. A lack of affordable housing perpetuates homelessness in men and women. Working again helps the women remember who they really are, Buckley says.
"Some of them are artists, they're musicians, they're caretakers—they had lives before this happened," she says. "This program is not going to help anybody get off the street, but it's going to give them a sense of purpose, a reminder that they can work."
And six months of HWP, started by Tucson City Council's Ward 5, suggests that a renewed sense of purpose may contribute to finding regular work and getting off the streets.
As of June, 166 people participated in the program. Seventeen have since found housing, and 20 have found other employment.
The program initiated with $25,000 each from the City of Tucson and Pima County, which was already allocated for street cleanup. HSL Properties matched that with an additional $50,000. And Cox Communications, Southwest Gas, Tucson Medical Center and Wal-Mart all made donations amounting to a combined $20,500.
Almost all of the money goes directly to the workers. The program, run by Old Pueblo Community Services, only has one expense: a driver to take participants to the work sites, according to Director of Development at Old Pueblo Nancy Jones. Other expenses are provided by partnering organizations.
Sister Jose, Salvation Army and Primavera Foundation provide shelter the night before the work. El Rio Health provides medical exams the day before to make sure participants are physically able to work outdoors. Assurance Behavioral HealthCare provides transportation. And Caridad Community Kitchen provides lunches.
Cenpatico Integrated Care contributed $58,000-worth of staff time. One portion of that is for a case manager from Catholic Community Services who connects participants with services such as health insurance, food stamps, work training, employment programs and housing.
"There are multiple goals with this program," Jones says. "One is to give people meaningful work, and that helps build self esteem and self confidence, and elevate their desire to do more for themselves in their lives." The other goals are connecting them with support services and immediate cash for necessities.
As of June, HWP participants had cleared 37,000 pounds of trash from 101 locations, including 55 miles of roadway. And according to the Ward 5 office, this was accomplished at "a fraction of the cost of traditional means."
Out at the animal shelter, the women fold and wash towels and blankets used on the animals. They find ways to stay busy when there are lulls in laundry. A couple of them, including Ramonia Hargrett, ask about job openings at PACC.
The 53-year-old exudes positivity despite being homeless for a year. She usually sleeps at friends' houses or in a box at a hidden spot she know of. She says she's a licensed massage therapist, but missing her front teeth has made working in that field hard.
"I have a smile barrier. That puts people off," Hargrett says, grinning. "I'm in circumstantial situations. I didn't dig myself a hole, but I'm in a hole that I can't get out of."
She also worked as a cook for 20 years, but after breaking both her wrists four years ago, it's hard for her to lift heavy pots. But she says she's still very capable and wants to work. She plans on putting the money she'll make at PACC into her bank account, which is currently overdrawn.
"I have a lot of things going for me, I just don't have the place that I need," she says. "The opportunity to do this work program is an awesome thing, especially for those who need it and want it."