Denver Post – by JOE VACCARELLI
Rita Robledo still tears up when talking about her two dogs she had to give up nearly three years ago when she had been living on the street and using an abandoned shack for a shelter. Now what she really wants is to live in a home where she can have at least one dog.
Her temporary unit in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood doesn’t allow dogs, but she’s hoping to be on her way into something new after landing a full-time seasonal job with Denver Parks and Recreation.
Robledo, 54, started off in the Denver Day Works program, making $60 per day before she was offered a position working in Skyline Park.
“I feel like a human being,” she said.
Robledo is one of four people from the Denver Day Works program, launched last November to provide work opportunities for the homeless, to get hired as a full-time seasonal employee to work on cleaning up some of the city’s parks.
It’s her first job in more than five years after she was let go from her last regular job and a far cry from when she was trying to work day labor and hoping she would be picked for work by contractors.
“I used to get up at 2:30 and see if I could get on a ticket. I would do that for almost a year. That was rough. I would sit there all day waiting to get called out. Now I see some light. I know what I’m doing and know where to go. It’s good,” she said.
Denver Parks and Recreation deputy executive director Scott Gilmore said the four new employees have been good assets so far, although he realizes just having a job isn’t enough.
“I’ve taken this program personal and so when we hire people on, I’m trying to make sure that we’re providing support services, making sure they have housing, making sure they can buy food, making sure they have bank accounts,” Gilmore said.
The Denver Day Works program is run through Bayaud Enterprises, a nonprofit that looks to help the disabled and those with other barriers gain employment. It was Bayaud that helped get Robledo into her current home.
Scott Kerr, director of the employment and opportunity center for Bayaud, said that the parks department was short-handed when it came to seasonal workers and is glad to see the it hire people from the day works program.
“Last year they had dozens of openings that never got filled, and I have dozens of homeless who need jobs. It’s a good fit,” Kerr said.
According to Gilmore, there were about 40 full-time seasonal worker positions that were not filled last year.
Four of those positions were in Civic Center Park, where Joe Renteria is the supervisor. Renteria has worked with many of the Denver Day Works employees as well as Robledo and others who have been hired into seasonal jobs.
“Rita is pretty exceptional. She is wonderful, she has a great attitude,” Renteria said, adding that he felt the three seasonal workers he’s worked with who came from the day works program have been assets.
The parks department will soon hire a few more seasonal workers from the day works program, including Joe Martinez, who fell on hard times after retiring as an instructor at some of the recreation centers. Martinez was identified as a good fit by staff and has gone through the application process. The process is the same for all seasonal employees, including those who have worked with the day works program.
Martinez will likely be working at Ruby Hill Park in southwest Denver.
“I’m elated to get back into working and especially to work outdoors,” Martinez said. “I’ve always had a passion for it.”
Gilmore says the parks department still has a lot to learn regarding the program and hiring people who are in poverty or homeless because getting a job could actually lead to more problems, such as the loss of food stamps.
He called it a balancing act and remains committed to making the program work long-term. Denver Day Works was launched as a pilot project and funded for one year.
“We really need to show that we can make it a successful program. It just takes some work. I see this as being something that helps us fill positions and find quality people to work for us. It’s just something we should be doing, really,” Gilmore said.
Robledo’s and Martinez’s jobs will end in November, but Gilmore said keeping the job will make them eligible for unemployment until they are able to be hired again for the next season in February or until they find a permanent job.
And for now, just having a job is something that makes Robledo feel good every day.
“Being able to afford even a cup of coffee in the morning, or a bus ride, I feel like I’m joining the race. I’m here,” she said. “People are noticing the things that I do.”