Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Former Prisoners Find Redemption Running a Prosperous Business in San Francisco’s Public Housing

March 31, 2016
by
Former Prisoners Find Redemption Running a Prosperous Business in San Francisco’s Public Housing
Tyrone Mullins (far right) with members of his crew, Terrell Hall and Marcus Hines. Courtesy of Citizen Film
Green Streets not only keeps recyclable and compostable materials from ending up in landfills, but it also saves its employees from living a life of crime and incarceration.

At the age of 13, Tyrone Mullins had his first contact with the justice system in 1998, handcuffed for starting a small tussle at school. He could’ve been hit with a minor reprimand, serving a few weeks of detention or even a suspension, but instead, he was formally charged with a crime — setting Mullins on a path of near-permanent incarceration for the next half of his life. “From that point on, it was juvenile hall, county jail and prison,” says Mullins, a San Francisco native who grew up in a Western Addition public housing project. As a felon, Mullins had limited employment opportunities after each release. Rejected from positions at hotels, supermarkets, department stores, doughnut shops, Jamba Juice and McDonald’s, Mullins subsided on money from the government ($336 a month, split into two checks). “All that allows is temptation to come in and make you do another thing, follow another walk of life,” Mullins explains. “You may not necessarily want to take that route, but people do things when they’re hurting.” And Mullins was hurting.

Navigating past numerous hard knocks, in 2010, Mullins co-founded a successful business that provides jobs to public housing residents, regardless of their parole status. At three Bay Area public housing complexes, Green Streets pays employees $12.25 an hour to sort trash from recyclables and compostables. While handling garbage is far from glamorous in a city that’s home to Salesforce, Twitter and Dropbox, Green Streets’s roughly two dozen workers wear their grey jumpsuits with pride. For many, it marks the first time they’ve financially supported themselves. (“Legally,” Mullins likes to add.) In a city that’s witnessed a mass exodus of low-income African-Americans due to the rising cost of living, these denizens of the projects can finally point to ownership of an enterprise in a world where so much is out of their price range.

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Green Streets got its unofficial start in 2010, when a work crew arrived at a Western Addition affordable housing development, managed by the for-profit company McCormack Baron Ragan, to install solar panels. Worried about thieves, round-the-clock security was desired. David Mauroff, McCormack Baron’s vice president at the time, didn’t have the money for guards, but he had another idea: “Why don’t you hire the guys who you think are gonna steal your stuff?” Resident DeMaurio Lee staffed the job, and nothing was stolen. Mullins, meanwhile, with two out of three felony strikes against him, installed panels himself, after finding the job through a nonprofit. Four months later, after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, DeMaurio and Mullins gathered the courage to approach Mauroff (despised by most residents, Mauroff says of himself, as the man who personally signed off on evictions) and asked for more work. With a background in city-run gang intervention programs, Mauroff could see the determination on their faces and agreed to see what he could do.

The solution appeared when the complex’s next waste disposal bill arrived. At just one project, Buena Vista Plaza East (193 units, known to many as “O.C.” or “Outta Control”), McCormack Baron faced a $14,000 annual charge from Recology to haul trash to the landfill or an incinerator. As part of San Francisco’s plan to become a zero-waste city by 2020, the bill could be significantly lowered by removing plastic bottles, aluminum cans, food, soiled paper and garden clippings from the overflowing dumpsters. Mauroff, who’s now credited as one of Green Streets’s co-founders, told Mullins he would pay residents to sort through waste, earmarking any savings on his bills for their wages. “I’m not telling you how to do this. I will just help you get the resources in place for you to launch this business,” he told the two men.

Neighbors made fun of the crew digging through rat-infested trash piles in their white protective suits. Yet within six months, thousands of gallons of trash were diverted each month, saving the property 60 percent on its bills. Soon, neighbors started handing Mullins their résumés.

To turn the model into a business, complete with hiring plans, a mission statement, marketing and sound financials, Mullins enrolled in free classes at San Francisco City College’s Small Business Institute. Severely complicating matters was the fact that in the Western Addition complex, danger and temptation were omnipresent. In the courtyards, residents had to dodge literal bullets. Mullins himself was sent back to prison for two years for violating his parole.

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While Mullins served his time, the rest of San Francisco’s black population continued its decades-long “black flight.” (Since 1970, the city’s portion of African-Americans has been halved, from 13.4 percent to just 5.8 percent in 2014.) Green Streets employees interviewed for this story feel keenly aware of their skin color. Unprompted, they often identified others by race: Mauroff was a “white dude”; neighbors, a “bunch of black people.” They feel that racial differences have been exaggerated by California’s penal system, with which many public housing residents come into contact. In the past, more than half the lockups in San Francisco’s jail have been African-Americans, and last year, four city cops were investigated for trading bigoted text messages. Even in this famously tolerant city, race continues to be a point of tension, says London Breed, one of two African-American city supervisors on the city’s nine-member board. “I am just trying to hold on to evidence that blacks ever existed in San Francisco,” Breed, who grew up in Western Addition public housing, tells the Los Angeles Times.

For those African-Americans who have stayed in the city, the economic outlook looks bleak. The median household income among blacks has fallen to a slim $29,500, while all other racial groups have seen wages rise. (By comparison, the median household pay for whites, thanks to tech money, now exceeds six figures: $104,300.) Roughly one quarter of the city’s blacks rely on subsidized housing, according to data from the Mayor’s Task Force, but the lifeline doesn’t begin to meet demand (only 3.6 percent of applicants receive housing through a lottery system). For the lucky few, like Green Streets employees, housing may be affordable, but the city is anything but.

Gentrification isn’t the only reason why some neighbors are gone: gun violence regularly racks the housing developments. “In San Francisco, with this extreme wealth and income disparity, most of our crime is really centered, not in, but around public housing, these little pockets of poverty isolated from the $1 to $2 million homes right across the street,” Mauroff observers. Last summer, a 19-year-old girl was gunned down in a spray of bullets. The girl’s aunt, Shannon Watts, is Green Streets’s human resources manager. A victim of gun violence herself (taking a bullet in her right leg in 2012), Watts says that her work with Green Streets helped her overcome the debilitating trauma that once kept her captive inside her apartment, door locked and shades drawn.

The difficulties that Green Streets’s employees encounter are considered a badge of honor, a sign of how much they’ve overcome to reach their current success — meager as a minimum-wage job might look to any of the Bay Area’s elites. When Mullins finished his two years in prison, he enrolled in Project ReMADE, a 12-week program at Stanford that trains ex-cons to be entrepreneurs. “I see the transformation I’ve made, and I’m honest with myself,” Mullins says today. “I continue to be a work in progress.”

Reinstated as Green Streets’s operations manager and the leader of the business development team, Mullins took his education back to the informal economy of the projects, where some residents earn extra cash by doing each other’s hair, fixing cars and babysitting, while others sell drugs and break into cars. This self-contained marketplace arose because so many are kept out of workplaces by criminal records or lack of job experience, Mauroff notes. Green Streets bridges that transition to the working world, though it’s not without its bumps. Turf wars between gangs in different housing projects sometimes bleeds over when rivals are staffed together on company cleanup crews. Randolph Lee, the 48-year-old operations supervisor, says he’s responded to fights, stabbings and “a little bit of gunplay.”

A “two-time ex-felon” convicted of murder, Randolph has regularly been tempted to snap back to his old ways. Before he got the job with Green Streets, he says, “I was ready to go back to what I had done before. Just hustling, you know?” he recalls. “I was on my way back to do something I wasn’t supposed to do: I was going to go get it, go get some bread to pay bills.” Since starting with Green Streets in 2013, Randolph has been promoted through the ranks. In his current role as supervisor, he helps employees productively deal with their anger, pointing to his own story: “The only thing we have is our pride, and how far could that go if we allow ourselves to get incarcerated for life,” Randolph says. “I done terrorized and fought my community. It was time to heal my community. I never wanted my last legacy of myself just being a screwup.”

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Mullins envisions the same impact helping the poorest residents of Detroit, St. Louis, Miami and Phoenix, but a recent failed expansion to nearby Richmond and Oakland shows any scaling must overcome logistical issues. Because the two East Bay cities don’t have strong zero-waste initiatives that discount hauling of recyclables and compostables, the trash bill at housing projects only increased by hiring Green Streets. That’s not to say the model can’t be applied elsewhere, but green subsidies will have to be in place for it to work.

The Western Addition and Plaza East projects serve as evidence of just how successful this business can be. There’s a changed vibe and it’s cleaner, too, as 60,960 gallons of trash are being diverted into other waste streams. But more importantly, there’s fewer men on the corner, whispering street names for drugs to passersby. Many, like Randolph, now work for Green Streets, a model demonstrating that an entrepreneurial spirit can be found in any community, Mauroff says, no matter how unexpected. “A bunch of guys and girls in public housing aren’t given the credit for showing they can do that,” he argues. “I want people to understand that: Under the right circumstances, everyone will go back to work and try to compete in the market.”

For all the frustrations tech startups have unleashed on the Bay Area, they’ve also instilled a sense that the calcified structures of the past don’t necessarily need to be around tomorrow. Mullins brought that Silicon Valley ethic to the Western Addition projects. He deserves credit for his own powerful disruption: not just finding a new way to sort trash and manage its pickup, but for an entirely new vision of labor for those the tech world’s prosperity is leaving behind.

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