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Wheels of Change offers employment to homeless while cleaning San Diego neighborhoods

Posted at 6:31 AM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 09:31:12-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Helping the homeless improve their lives, while cleaning up San Diego streets and making them safer — that's the heart of a work program in San Diego called Wheels of Change.

Amid the homeless dwellings that line some sidewalks in San Diego's East Village, a crew of yellow-vested workers — who are also experiencing homelessness — was employed for $13.50 an hour to pick up trash.

“It's not only helping to keep your own self-worth because you're not feeling like your just leaching off someone or something,” said Mirra, a Russian immigrant who’s yet to find a permanent home since coming to the U.S.

They're getting a wage,” said Kevin Barber, the co-founder of Wheels of Change. “They can buy their necessities. And they also just love giving back. They love cleaning up the streets.”

Barber is a 19-year-old college junior who co-founded Wheels of Change with his mother in 2018.

“Wheels of Change is a job employment program for the homeless of San Diego,” said Barber. “We operate five days a week, employing 20 people each day.”

Barber said he got the idea from a TedTalk by the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that was posted on YouTube. Barber and his mother presented the idea to the nonprofit Alpha Project, which provides homeless services in San Diego.

“The Alpha Project is running our daily operations,” said Kevin. “Each day, they leave the bridge shelter around 9 a.m. with two vans, each with about 10 people, cleaning up any area in our city.”

Kenneth Allen says he survived a youth of gangs and drugs, and he now works as a supervisor for Wheels of Change. He said it's not just about clean-up but safety, as he displays a container of at least a half dozen used syringes.

“These are some of the needles our clients have collected,” said Allen. “Some of the homeless disposed after they used it.”

Along with protecting others and cleaning the streets, Kevin said Wheels of Change is helping those in the cleaning crews to take a step forward.

“I've seen them transition from the wheels of change to a full-time job," he said.

Kevin said it’s about building confidence.

Once these people get a job with Wheels of Change,” said Kevin, “They say, hey, maybe I can apply to Costco or Target.”

Barber was just 15 when the program began. While the Alpha Project manages the day-to-day, he continues to help with fundraising. He said Wheels of Change has received more than a million dollars in grants and donations since it began four years ago.

As for what’s next, Kevin said, “I'm a junior in college right now. I'm really enjoying my time. The next steps for me would be to continue fund raising, and hopefully employ more people per week and keep learning.”

And as the cleanup continues, “You feel that you're earning this money,” said Mirra. “And you're more proud of yourself. It helps you get back up on your feet.”

Because of his steadfast dedication to those in need, ABC 10News and LEAD San Diego have chosen Kevin Barber as our 10News leadership award winner for the month of February.

To nominate someone for our 10News Leadership Award visit https://www.10news.com/community.