A newly approved city contract will offer new opportunities to several homeless Fort Worth residents.

Presbyterian Night Shelter, a multi-pronged nonprofit organization aimed at helping homeless people in the city, secured the contract through its business arm UpSpire, formerly known as Clean Slate. This is the fifth contract between UpSpire and the city since 2016.

“The great thing about working with Presbyterian Night Shelter is they really try to provide stability for their folks,” said Debbie Branch, district superintendent with the parks and recreation department. “They provide a 401K, sick days and health care coverage.”

Of the $170,000 maintenance contract, the city anticipates awarding $31,560 to UpSpire. Additional funding will go toward another vendor, Lawn Patrol Service Inc., and the rest will be held back by the city.

“We don’t anticipate spending that ($170,000),” Branch said. “If in the worst-case scenario, we had a ton of rain, irrigation failure or something like that, we have to have budgeted enough to cover those catastrophes.” 

Employees will work to maintain planting beds surrounding Race Street once their installation is completed this summer. Litter removal, mowing, string trimming, blowing and bed maintenance are all included in the contract.

“We want to give everyone the opportunity for stable full-time employment,” said Kirsten Ham, the vice president of workforce and career development at UpSpire. 

UpSpire provides free job training, support

To work with UpSpire, prospective employees first complete a basic job application and undergo a drug screening and background check. A criminal history is one of the top barriers to traditional employment opportunities, Ham said, and UpSpire will work with applicants to find them a job open to people with prior convictions. 

“We don’t want to set folks up for failure,” she said. “We let them decide what position they would like.”

Once people are hired, they begin receiving free job training and are assigned an experienced worker to help guide them through their new resposibilities. Employees are paid a minimum of $10 per hour, with the possibility for a pay increase as they undergo further training. 

“So many opportunities available to (homeless residents) are day labor, part-time,” Ham said. “We want to offer equitable employment opportunities.”

UpSpire employees are welcome to stay with the program however long they’d like. Recently, one worker celebrated his eighth anniversary. Others stick around for a year to become financially stable and secure housing, then move on to other jobs. 

At the heart of the program is a commitment to support. Shawanda Kennedy, who heads UpSpire’s human resources division, said being able to provide a listening ear to workers can help them navigate the challenges they’re experiencing both inside and outside the workplace.

The most important part of her job, Kennedy said, is when “employees tell us that we’re needed.”

Maintenance work set to begin in the fall, part of effort to revitalize Race Street

UpSpire began branching out in landscaping services during the pandemic, and the company has continued to grow the program since, Ham said.

“Landscaping and maintenance pays more than litter management,” she said. “It lets us teach a skill, and then (the employees) can get higher-paying opportunities in the future, whether with us or another company.”

Previously, UpSpire has accepted city contracts for mowing with the parks department and litter removal for the code compliance department. This is the first time UpSpire has signed a landscaping contract with the city.

“It was great to see them make that leap from litter removal to grounds maintenance,” Branch said. “They moved into grounds maintenance without missing a beat.”

Once the initial contractor completes work in the spring and summer, UpSpire workers will step in and begin providing maintenance. This is the first year maintenance will be conducted by UpSpire, but likely not the last. The contract allows for an additional three years of maintenance if the city is pleased with the work.

“As long as they’re performing well, and addressing call backs, then pretty much the contract is going to be renewed.”

The city first began looking at ways to revitalize Race Street in 2007, when it released a master plan detailing how the area should be improved through the Urban Village Development Program. 

Ten years later, the city put the money where its mouth was and invested millions to improve traffic flow, sidewalks and landscaping. The planting beds are the latest example of the city’s push to beautify the area.

“This model of a public-private partnership with Fort Worth, investing in creating jobs, is so impactful,” Ham said. 

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...

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