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Texans Helping Texans: Harris County expands program that employs, empowers homeless

Last June, we looked into a program that offers paid work to the homeless. The program worked so well, it expanded into a permanent opportunity.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — What a difference a second, third or fourth chance can make.

Last June, KHOU 11 News shared how Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia was testing a program that offers paid work to men and women experiencing homelessness. The program works so well it expanded into a permanent opportunity.

Earlier this month, the Harris County Commissioner’s Court approved expanding the program, which is called Employ2Empower, county-wide.

“It’s just ... blessed to work,” Todd Williams said as he worked to paint a parking lot at a county community center.

“Just keep trying,” he said of his opportunity to start over after living on the streets of Harris County for the last 2 1/2 years. “Try to help myself and better myself. Make myself a better man.”

Each commissioner will use funds out of their budget to employ homeless residents for jobs like graffiti abatement, restriping parking lots, power-washing county properties and cleaning up sidewalks and gutters. The program currently pays $10 an hour but will be boosted to $15/hour, which is what entry-level county workers are paid to do the same type of work.

“I love painting,” Victavian Collier said as he repainted parking space barriers. “It’s therapeutic for me because I like to see the transformation.”

Collier said he’s experienced homelessness for the last two years. The 51-year-old told KHOU 11 that he’s struggled to find his footing since relocating to the Houston area earlier in the pandemic.

“You wouldn’t believe the people I meet and the people that want to change and want to do different,” Collier said of the mentors and friends made through the program which is managed by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“If you give them the opportunity, the training, the patience, the tools, they’ll work,” deputy Rick Medina, who’s been working with homeless county residents since the pilot program first launched with just a handful of volunteers, said.

The goal then was to get at least six people off the street and into permanent housing with full-time jobs.

“At this point, we have over 20 people in permanent housing,” Katosha Staves said.

She's a program manager for Career & Recovery Resources, the job-hunting and skills-building arm of the program. Staves told KHOU 11 that another 10 people are about to transition off the streets and out of shelters into apartments. So far, 22 people have traded their paintbrushes for jobs in landscaping, restaurants, stores and warehouses.

“When Texans help each other I feel like we all succeed. We all benefit from the good,” Staves said.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the Employ2Empower program is award-winning. Federal agencies and other Texas cities, like Austin, are interested in learning more about the program that is changing lives and creating hope in people who just need one more chance.

“I just put it in God’s hands and just go with it,” Williams said.

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