By the time the white van pulled up to the curb at Salvador Perez Park around 7:30 a.m., the workers were ready.

About a dozen men and women, many of whom had been at the park since before dawn, detached themselves from their waiting spot near the pool building and raced toward the car.

“Pick me, pick me,” someone shouted as the group hurried over.

Quill Head, the van’s driver, met them at the curb with handshakes and a “good morning.” Then, he gave them some bad news.

“We can only take six people,” he said. “I know some of you are going to be disappointed.”

Head explained that he’d have to choose randomly from the group of potential hires, excluding anyone who had already been chosen for the work that week. He would likely focus on people he’d passed over on similar pickups, he said.

“I thought it was first come, first serve,” said a young man wearing a Denver Broncos hat. “I’ve been here since 5:30.”

The Broncos fan made it on the van. So did his friend, a woman in a pink coat, as well as a bearded man in a beanie and two more of the lucky ones who had showed up Thursday morning for the promise of five hours of work, paid in cash.

After the crew had climbed aboard Head’s white van, he explained that they’d be working on a project for the city of Santa Fe. Their task: cleaning up the city-owned campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Their goals: to stay healthy and safe, and to “blow the city away with how much work we get done.”

“All right ladies and gentleman,” Head said as he pulled the van away from the curb. “Welcome to Better Way — Santa Fe.”

The Better Way van project, launched last week by the city of Santa Fe and a local nonprofit, The Life Link, was designed as a way to help homeless people and panhandlers in the Santa Fe community find work. In the short term, participants pick up a bit of cash for an honest day’s work. The long-term goal is to also help people secure permanent jobs, housing and other services they need.

“That kind of experience, we believe, will increase people’s sense of the possibility of hope, that there really is a hope that I could do something that would get me out of homelessness,” said Head, who is the program manager for the Better Way — Santa Fe van.

The personal connections are important, too, said Mark Voss, an outreach services manager at The Life Link.

“It’s not just work, but it’s also having a mentor with Quill,” Voss said. “They’ve already got a friend through this that can help them navigate Santa Fe.”

In the pale, early light of a spring day, Head passed out gloves, vests and Fiber One breakfast bars to his Thursday crew. They got to work with shovels and rakes, defrosting and then sweating in the warm sun, with only chirping birds to keep them company on the quiet campus.

Set to close in May, the university was nearly abandoned.

For the next six hours, the workers would rake leaves and sweep sidewalks, dig out weeds and break for a lunch provided by the program. At the end of the day, they’d net five hours worth of minimum-wage pay — almost $60 in cash.

Mark Bobchak planned to use some of that money to purchase a birth certificate and update his photo identification.

“If your ID expires, you expire,” Bobchak said. He can’t buy his medications without a current ID. He can’t buy a beer, for that matter. Or drive a car. Or partake in a number of other freedoms most adults enjoy.

Bobchak used to be homeless but now lives in an apartment with assistance through The Life Link. His caseworker there told him about the van program. He hasn’t worked a full-time job in four or five years, he said, but before that he put in a few decades working for state agencies, including the Motor Vehicle Department.

Recently, he’s been doing landscaping jobs for family members.

“It’s hard to work and live on the streets,” Bobchak said. “I’m hoping to get back in the saddle.”

Chris Sanchez, who directs the city of Santa Fe’s Community Services Department, said helping members of the homeless community transition into a more stable lifestyle is exactly the point.

For the last few years, the city’s Human Services Committee has noticed what appears to be an increase in the homeless community, he said. So, committee members asked themselves, “How do we get our homeless population to become stable and move through the cycle of rehabilitation to the point of getting back to their lives and contributing to the community?”

They decided to partner with a nonprofit to run a work program, Sanchez said.

The Better Way van was inspired by a similar employment program in Albuquerque called There’s a Better Way. That initiative, started in 2015 by then-Republican mayor Richard Berry, has gained national recognition as an innovative way to help homeless people.

“The job is the actual hook, to get the homeless population there,” Sanchez said. “The real beauty is the connection the staff makes with the individual … to establish trust between the staff and the homeless, so they begin seeking the services they need.”

Head is working to develop that trust. He is employed with The Life Link, a homelessness-focused organization that won the bid to run the program. Its partnership with the city looks like this: Life Link — mostly Head — oversees the program, supervises workers and provides transportation to job sites.

The city, in turn, has promised $140,000 for a two-year pilot program for the Better Way van. The city will keep tabs on whether the investment is succeeding in helping people access services and achieve more stability, Chavez said.

They’ll keep the van busy, too. After the University of Art and Design cleanup, Sanchez said the city Parks and Recreation Department and Santa Fe Police Department are interested in using the workers. The Better Way program is also open to projects and partnership ideas with other groups, Head said.

Three days into the project, the Better Way organizers were already looking for more funding to increase the number of workers they can hire.

On Tuesday, the first day the van was running, around 30 people showed up to snag a spot on the work crew. The demand slowed down a bit over the next few days, with about a dozen people showing up.

Christopher Wheeler, who was part of the six-man work crew Wednesday, says he understands exactly why that demand exists.

“I think this is a great opportunity because, in order to be looking for a job, you need a little bit of money,” Wheeler said. “I need my ID. And through this, I met Quill — and he is going to help.”

Wheeler gave up his housing to seek drug treatment, he said, and since he got out of the rehabilitation program a few months ago, he has been working whatever jobs he can find and staying at a homeless shelter.

He’s working hard to stay sober. “That’s one thing I need to do,” Wheeler said, “keep myself busy.”

There’s another benefit, too, he said, one he could see as he raked and cleaned between the campus’ mismatched buildings and sculptures.

“It’s awesome to see the before and after. The areas we’re doing, and already have done, look really good,” Wheeler said. “That makes you feel good — that you know you’re doing a good job.”

Lisa Serrano, who was sitting on a bench at the campus next to Wheeler during the work crew’s midday lunch break, agreed.

“I think everybody should have the opportunity to do this,” Serrano said. “It’s a two-win situation. You’re helping the community, and you’re helping your self-esteem by showing yourself that you’re capable of doing work.”

Contact Sami Edge at 505-986-3055 or sedge@sfnewmexican.com.

Better Way — Santa Fe van

Pickup time: 7:30 a.m.

Tuesday: Gen. Franklin E. Miles Park

Wednesday: Fort Marcy Complex

Thursday: Salvador Perez Park

For more information, contact Quill Head at qhead@thelifelink.org or 505-819-7143

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