Helping those experiencing homelessness on the homefront, Tulsa’s A Better Way initiative is providing many panhandlers job opportunities that have the potential to turn lives around for the better.
Ever driven by someone asking for money or food on the side of the road and thought to yourself, “There but for the grace of God go I”? Perhaps you’ve handed them a little cash or a bottle of water or a sandwich. You may have wondered whether it’s possible to turn their lives around in a meaningful way.
Tulsa’s A Better Way initiative is aiming to change all that. This innovative program, one of the first-ever of its type in the entire nation, has already helped many panhandlers find jobs that have the potential to turn their lives around for the better. And as the program moves into its second year, it has set its goals even higher to make lasting changes for some of Tulsa’s most vulnerable inhabitants.
Contrary to popular belief, many people who panhandle are not doing so because they don’t want a job. Many, in fact, have ended up on the streets due to issues as varied as suffering from PTSD after military service, untreated mental illness, being unable to pay the rent, or even being mentally challenged and then abandoned after their parents died. Life has gotten the better of these people, and they need help.
That’s where a program like A Better Way makes a huge difference. A joint initiative by the City of Tulsa, Tulsa Area United Way, and Mental Health Association Oklahoma, A Better Way has already reached over 800 panhandlers in its first year. The program assists those who are panhandling or experiencing homelessness in two ways.
First, those in need are given an opportunity to earn a day’s wages. The program’s van runs three days a week, reaching out to panhandlers at various “hot spots” in the city, picking up those willing to work, and bringing them to area parks to clean up trash and debris. Those who work a full day receive $65. But this day of work is just the start of A Better Way’s impact.
Those who participate with A Better Way can also consult with a service navigator and employment specialist, who helps connect the participants with life-changing services in the community, such as housing, mental health, addiction treatment, and employment assistance. The end goal is to help participants find more sustainable employment that can help keep them off the streets for good.
To make this happen, A Better Way is forging strategic partnerships with area businesses willing to give those in need a second chance. One of these partnerships launched in January with Tulsack, an area manufacturer that has already hired seven participants from A Better Way and is looking forward to hiring more.
Tulsack’s site leader Jarrod Dyess, production manager Ed Almendares, and HR coordinator Lianne Torianyk all agree that working with Tulsa’s homeless and panhandling population is a great opportunity to create lasting changes in the community.
For 35 years, Tulsack has been employing Tulsans to help manufacture paper-handle shopping bags. “Locally, you would see our bags at places like Zios, On the Border, and Reasor’s,” says Dyess. “We do some national chains like Adidas, H&M and Macy’s, larger department stores as well.”
Tulsack grew by about 20 percent in 2018 and anticipates growing another 15 percent this year. “So, we’re adding jobs,” says Dyess. And that’s partly why the company connected with A Better Way — to find good workers. Their experience partnering with A Better Way to help people find employment has been a good one.
“They’ve surpassed our expectations,” says Torianyk of the Better Way participants they’ve hired. “I would have never guessed, to be honest, that they were homeless or going through struggles. I was here that next day [after their first day on the job], and there were smiles on their faces. They just could not believe it. They seem to love it here, and we love them.”
“They seem pretty excited just to have a shot and a chance to work,” Almendares adds.
Beyond finding good employees, Tulsack has another reason for working with A Better Way. “It’s in Tulsack’s DNA to be community-focused,” Dyess says. Many Tulsack staff members have faced struggles of their own. Dyess and Almendares both remember growing up eating low-cost items like eggs and government cheese at times.
“We try not to forget where we come from,” says Almendares. “Things weren’t easy growing up, and we understand people need help now and then.”
Donnabeth Mitchell, one of the participants of A Better Way who works at Tulsack these days, is grateful for the help she has received through the program. “Without A Better Way, I would not have found my job at Tulsack,” Mitchell says. “I’m learning new skills and I have a solid, full-time job making better money, working with good people.”
Mitchell isn’t the only participant finding success at Tulsack. Another member of A Better Way’s program has done so well that he’s being promoted to a backup forklift position.
For Tulsack, partnering with A Better Way has been a win-win for everyone involved. “It’s a pretty painless way in which companies can get better involved in their community for a positive outcome,” says Almendares.
Dyess agrees. “It’s a great program. It’s consistent with the values of our city and our community. It’s certainly consistent with Tulsack’s values.”
The City of Tulsa is also pleased with the progress A Better Way has made in its first year. Mayor G.T. Bynum, who has championed the program since it launched in March 2018, says, “A Better Way program is using a whole community approach to panhandling by connecting individuals to life-changing services and employment. Thanks to Tulsack and the many other Tulsa employers of our Better Way program participants, people who were panhandling and experiencing homelessness are getting the help they need to create positive change in their life.”
Donations to A Better Way are welcome and benefit Mental Health Association Oklahoma, which handles the day-to-day operations of the program, as well as the Community Service Council, Iron Gate, John 3:16 Mission, Salvation Army and the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless. Donors can give online at csctulsa.org/a-better-way or text ABW to 898211.
Getting involved in the effort to end panhandling is worth it, says the Tulsack team. “Our objective is to hire and develop good people, and good people come from all over the place,” they say. “Why not give somebody a second chance?”
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