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Politics and Government

For panhandlers, homeless in Syracuse’s Hire Ground program, behind every sign is a story

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
The Hire Ground crew arrives for work at the NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse.

The Hire Ground program in Syracuse picks up panhandlers and the homeless and pays them $50 for five hours of manual labor, like cleaning up litter. The program also connects the homeless with services like Medicaid, housing and addiction treatment. But there is a story behind every sign. 

The Hire Ground van goes out three days a week to certain spots in the city. On a Monday morning in February, Kevin Batsford, the driver and crew supervisor, said a prayer before they left.

“Father, I come to you with a humble heart and I ask that you watch over our friends today, father, and help us to choose who you want on the van, father," Batsford said.

They only have room for nine people. Carolyn Blount is the case manager and she tells Batsford who he can or can’t let on the van.

“There have been days that there’s almost 30 people there and we can only pick four or five,” Blount said.

Blount keeps track of who works when, so they can rotate people. The first pickup is at 8 a.m.

A crowd gathered across from the downtown Centro bus hub. Batsford and Blount said the hardest part is picking who gets on the van. Pat Ferone was one of them.

“I’m getting sick of the hustling thing,” Ferone said in the van. “I’m getting so annoyed with it. It’s getting so repetitive, it’s starting to drive me nuts."

After two other stops, they parked the van and gave the crew breakfast donated by Dunkin’ Donuts. Allie was the only woman on the crew that day.

“I mean it’s 50 bucks, so, why the hell not?” Allie said. “Then, I don’t have to sit on the corner. It’s a lot harder than you really expect. You get called bum and all types of names.”

Dion Rice has been on the van before.

“A lot of us have social anxiety and have a hard time being around people,” Rice said. “Some of these people can’t even step into a place to apply, because they have such social anxiety.”

After breakfast, Batsford spelled out the rules, like no drug or alcohol use during work hours. The crew headed to the NBT Bank baseball stadium for the day, where they would be shoveling snow out of the stands. Before they started, Clarence Alexander talked about being sober for about five months.

“I went through withdrawals, thrown up, drive heave, shaking,” Alexander said. “It was the worst I ever went through. Before I got better, it got worse.”

Once they arrived, they were given hats, gloves and shovels. Then they headed upstairs. David Fergot, deputy commissioner of facilities management with Onondaga County, explained to the crew what they would be doing.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Hire Ground workers clear snow out of the stands.

“We’re going to pick sections and clear snow,” Fergot said. “They’re putting in 11,000 new seats. You’re going to throw the snow on top of the dugout. That’s where it’s going to end up.”

It was cold outside and the snow was heavy and wet.

“A lot of people when we first started they’re like, panhandlers don’t work, they ain’t going to work,” Batsford, the crew supervisor, said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

After about an hour, Batsford called the crew in for a 15-minute break. They smoked cigarettes and one of the workers, Chris, talked about finding dress clothes so he can try to get a job.

“I mean McDonald’s is paying $13.75 an hour,” Chris said. “Even part time, that’s better than what I’m doing. You ever had $1,000 in your pocket that you earned?”

Later that day, Chris asked for help getting into the Salvation Army’s detox program. It’s the same program that Batsford went through in 2014.

“I was homeless,” Batsford said. “I’m a former addict."

In 2013, his younger brother, who was also homeless, died in a fire that was started in an abandoned house.

“For me that was a real tragic event,” Batsford said. “I could’ve went either way. I could’ve went off the deep end. I could be dead myself right now. I know that if I didn’t stop when I did, I would. I’d be dead by now.”

The crew worked until about 2 p.m. Then they loaded into the van, got paid, and were dropped back off where they were picked up. Batsford said the Hire Ground program is not going to change people overnight.

“It takes time,” Batsford said. “It’s a process. The more we get to know them, the more we build a relationship. It’s going to work.”

Batsford wants to expand the program to four or five days a week instead of just three. They've had more than 300 workers join them since the program started last spring.