New Downtown Partnership Offers People with Mental Illness Paid Jobs through Alley Cleaning Program

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Participants of the Alley Busters pilot program clean up a Willmore alley. Photos by Emily N. Tanaka. 

Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) and Mental Health America (MHA) are cleaning up the streets of Long Beach one alley at a time thanks to a recent collaboration known as Alley Busters. The seven-month-long pilot program is designed to help those with mental illnesses learn employable skills, and get paid, while cleaning up alleys in the downtown area.

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The program is the brainchild of Michelle Fuentes, a Long Beach local and employment specialist at MHA, and East Village resident Kim Phan. Phan and Fuentes first reached out to DLBA about a year and a half ago, after Phan got the idea when her and her neighbors decided to pay a woman who lived in her car to clean up the street, said DLBA’s Community Outreach Manager, Steven Be Cotte. They also looked to similar programs throughout the state for guidance, and beginning in the Willmore area this April, the Alley Busters pilot program was finally launched with both Fuentes and Be Cotte at the helm.

Every Wednesday morning at 9:00AM, the group of about three or four people meets at DLBA headquarters where Fuentes loads her minivan with a collection of street cleaning tools, empty trash bags and weed killer solution, then drives a group of alley busting MHA members to a trashed, decrepit alley in the downtown area. The group, all dressed in matching blue Alley Busters T-shirts, proceeds to clean the pathway, filling up bags and bags of trash, hitting as many neglected backstreets as they can until their workday ends at noon. While driving through alleys and deciding which spots warrant a full-blown clean up, Fuentes also photographs large pieces of furniture that have been left out. Working with the public works department, the bulk items will then be loaded into a DLBA truck and be properly disposed of.

Working as Alley Busters, the MHA members are given an opportunity to hold a paying job, which in turn, increases their self reliance and encourages them to pursue long-term careers, said Alley Buster Tommy Ivory. Each worker receives a wage provided by the MHA job training program.

According to Fuentes, many of the participants have disabilities, are low-income and receive some forms of social security benefits. However, when first arriving to the MHA Village, members often have no income, no housing, no employable skills and are often too depressed to keep a job. When people first enter the program, a team helps them set up their housing and medication before the person can meet with Fuentes and begin the long road to employment.

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Alley Busters is just the first step.

Ivory, a dedicated member of the Alley Busters program and a passionate worker, remembers a time when he didn’t believe he would ever have a future and found it impossible to move past his depression and self doubt. Through the program, Ivory has learned skills that help him cope with his illness and function in a workplace environment. He says he’s learned how to be patient and tolerant while on the job, and the experience has also taught him to be mindful of his work and face the day with a good attitude. The whole experience has given Ivory the self confidence to, not only seek long-term employment, but pursue a career.

Since working with Fuentes and the Alley Busters, he’s become excited to take the next steps to full-time employment and even aspires to enroll at Long Beach City College to receive certification to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

“Before, I was depressed and in a rut. I just didn’t have the energy and desire to work because of my mental illness,” said Ivory. “And now that MHA has helped me cross that bridge to work, employment and schooling, I want to take advantage of those opportunities. That fear is now gone.”

Throughout the last few months, residents have embraced the Alley Busters program and appreciate the work they’ve been doing for the community. The group can barely get through a day of work without a resident coming out to talk to Fuentes and thank the team for beautifying their neighborhood.

“The reactions from residents has been, for a lack of a better term, amazing,” Be Cotte said, “Every time I go and check on Michelle and the crew, at least one person stops to say thank you.”

According to Be Cotte, many of the people who go out of their way to thank the group for their work live in houses or apartments that face the alley and use it as an entrance on a daily basis. They appreciate the fact that people are taking time out of their day to pick up after other people’s dogs, clean up trash and clear weeds from their neglected roads and often ask when the team will return, said Be Cotte.

Based on the success so far of the Alley Busters program, Fuentes and Be Cotte say they plan to discuss its future and the possibility of expanding services. Businesses can also offer internships as part of MHA's employment program where members can work up to 16 hours a week paid by MHA.



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