Environmental Cleanup Opportunities (ECO) is celebrating its one year birthday this month.
ECO is a transitional job program instituted by the City of Visalia in partnership with ABLE Industries, a Visalia-based workforce organization for adults with disabilities, and the Workforce Investment Board of Tulare County. The initiative sees homeless individuals from around Visalia find full-time employment with the City, specifically in the area of sanitation.
Level I offers a workplace training program which teaches or re-teaches basic workplace skills. Here, participants learn to show up on time, build a resume, and how to interview among other essential abilities. Crews of workers are led by a supervisor who not only fulfills the role of “boss,” but also checks up on those enrolled to make sure they have support in their undertaking.
As of April 2018, 47 individuals have completed the work readiness portion of the program. Of that group, 29 moved onto Level II, which allows the participants from Level I to work for the city while they simultaneously search for other jobs. A minimum amount of time is required by the program allocated for this purpose.
Some of the workers have even gone on to find better wages outside of the project. Participants have found jobs paying above minimum wage at supermarkets, driving companies, as cashiers, and at customer service retailers. We were able to speak for with two people who have gone through the program and one who is currently in the program.
Rudy Medina is currently working for Downtown Visalians, a business working to upkeep and improve Visalia’s downtown area. Before ECO, he had been struggling with addiction for 15 years. For two years now, he’s been clean and he thought it was a good opportunity to get himself together and start working again. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said chuckling to himself.
After Level I, he worked alongside the Employment Development Department to help him find full-time work. “It was a month before we were supposed to end and I knew it was coming up and I said to myself ‘I don’t want to stop working.’” That drove him to work hard at finding a full-time job.
Beverley Luttrell and Michael Gonzales, who are currently undergoing and have gone through the program, respectively, shared the same sentiments. Beverley’s house burned down a while ago and she had been homeless since. She is now going through ECO and renting a room with her daughter. Michael was the former Operations Manager for the Hanford mall and when the economy tanked, he lost his job. Now, he works for the Solid Waste department at the City.
While working through ECO, members of the initiative have also been able to obtain housing. Individuals have found their own apartments or a place at the Rescue Mission. City Councilman Steve Nelsen said that, “it’s hard [to arrange housing], but you have to give them that opportunity.” He also likened it to a puzzle, as many pieces have to come together in order to find housing for a person who has been homeless for a few years.
ECO was conceived by the Visalia City Council after seeing several similar endeavors succeed in different areas. Councilman Phil Cox gave examples of the trailblazing initiatives to which they looked for inspiration. He specifically cited a southern California CalTrans campaign that allowed homeless people to work for them and go through a similar job training program. He also mentioned a project in Texas that inspired them to try to implement a similar measure in Visalia.
The city council put the program into motion last year and renewed the program for another year during its June 18th, 2018 meeting. They authorized allocation of funds from the Solid Waste department at the City in the amount of $182,182. The Workforce Investment Board of Tulare County will match the payment for a total of $364,364, which is needed to operate.
This money will go towards paying the participants fair wages, providing work supplies, transportation to the work site, clothing both for work and interviews, and drug screening/physicals among other expenses. When asked if the cost of the project matched the benefits, Councilman Cox stated that he was initially skeptical, but after seeing the successes of ECO, he says it’s well worth it.
The program is slated to remain active for as long as it continues to be beneficial, said Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler. “Our council is committed to continuing [ECO] at the level it is currently.”
By all accounts, this program is beneficial not only for the participants, but for the community as a whole. However, one glaring issue is the gender imbalance in the participant population. Currently, all who have gone through the initiative are men, but; as stressed by each council member interviewed, there is nothing prohibiting women or non-binary people from joining the endeavor. Administrators are not targeting any specific gender.
Aside from that, ECO seems to work well with the community. It gives those who have been chronically unemployed the ability to work and earn so that they may not only survive, but thrive. The city and its residents also benefit, as over 200 tons of refuse, litter, and trash have been collected by these crews according to an agenda summary of the council meeting.
If you or someone you know is interested in participating, the recommended method of enrollment is to be referred by the Rescue Mission, Bethlehem Center, or other such shelters. Some have also contacted the City directly at 559-713-4300 to register.