As Mobile debated the future of homelessness in the city earlier this year, Matt Armbruster got frustrated with what he said became an exercise in finger pointing.
“I got tired of everyone complaining and fighting over it,” said Armburster, the executive director of Ransom Ministries in Chickasaw. “We need to come up with a solution.”
Armbruster pitched his own solution, and it was backed by the Mobile City Council on Tuesday. The program is a 60-day pilot project putting homeless men and women to work picking up litter.
The council endorsed a $27,000 appropriation to Armbruster’s Ransom Ministries so the group can organize a pilot program consisting of a five-member crew and a supervisor.
The money will allow Ransom Ministries to recruit, train, and transport homeless people for work to various sites in Mobile to remove litter from the roadsides.
“What we’re trying to do is not just pick up trash,” said Armbruster, executive director with Ransom Ministries, which is based in Chickasaw and has administered employment programs for the homeless for nearly a decade. “We want to put people to work so they can get the service they need to become a person that can pay attention during a training class for welding (or similar programs).”
He added, “Right now, they are not in a place where they can think for long periods of time because they have been homeless or have just gotten out of prison. Our goal is to give them this job, let them make some money and start building soft skills that they can prove they can show up to work and do the things they need to do.”
Armbruster is confident that Ransom Ministries will get results, and he is hopeful the program will expand to include hiring 20 homeless people.
The pilot program will begin on August 1 and run until September 30.
Ransom Ministries is partnering with organizations that work directly with the homeless in Mobile — Waterfront Mission and McKemie Place – in identifying people who would be part of the litter abatement program.
According to the city, Ransom Ministries claims 83% of their participants within their employment programs have been able to get employed and stayed employed for at least a year.
The city is also hopeful that those participating in the program can gain the experience needed to become full-time city employees.
“I truly believe this will be a win-win for the city and those who take advantage of this program,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “Partnering with an established and proven organization like Ransom Ministries will help make an immediate impact in people’s lives – providing them with a means of income and potentially opening the door to other services like housing, healthcare and more.”
Armbruster said the goal is to get homeless people a job so they can start earning income and qualify for so-called “wrap around services,” such as housing and mental health care.
“Our goal as an organization is to get them off the streets so they don’t have to go to Waterfront Mission or McKemie,” he said. “They are able to get on a payroll and get paid and show people that they are working.”
He added, “I believe wholeheartedly and passionately that this will work.”
Armbruster said the program is patterned after a program in Indianapolis that partners with that city’s Department of Public Works to employ the homeless and pick up litter from city streets. That program also involves the participants in recycling electronic waste. It is funded through money raised from the city’s parking meters.
A majority of Mobile council members feel the program is worth a try.
“It fills a lot of needs for the homeless people who need a paycheck and get them off the streets,” said Councilwoman Gina Gregory. “When the city cannot fill positions for its litter crew, this helps us. The goal is for them to become full-time city employees.”
Councilman Scott Jones, however, said he was not sure litter pick-up with the right solution.
“I know we have a lot of needs in the city, and we hear about blighted properties,” said Jones. “We could put these guys with a painting (crew) or in carpentry and it’s a lot more inducive to creating an environment that creates real job skills than just picking up trash.”
Jones said the city spends approximately $1 million each year in litter abatement, money which he said was the result of residents being “lazy” and refusing to pick up after themselves.
“If everyone in the city would just pick up what they dropped, we would save this city $1 million and put it toward a lot of other initiatives that we talk about week after week,” Jones said.
Shonnda Smith, senior director of parks and recreation with the city of Mobile, said that Ransom Ministries is administering a program that is “bigger than litter.” She said participants often do not have the paperwork – a driver’s license, social security card – to apply for a city job.
She said the city has the positions to fill, but that homeless people do not have the means to apply for full-time work.
“Most don’t have a current driver’s license or didn’t know where to get the paperwork for a Social Security (card),” she said. “(This program) can bring them on through that process that will start them in building up funds that will transition them into work.”
The program is the first high-profile solution toward combatting homelessness since the city spent months debating whether to adopt a controversial prohibition against outdoor camping. The proposed ordinance was tabled in March.
The ordinance, when it was pitching in January, upset organizations that advocate for the homeless in Mobile. It was called “morally indefensible” and constitutionally questionable because it prohibited camping or leaving personal belongings such as bedrolls and clothing unattended within the city’s limits.
“I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the homeless,” Armbruster told the council. “All we do is fight (about it). After two months (of this program), if we decide it doesn’t work, we won’t do it anymore. But I know it works. We need to give it a try.”