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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Rudy, who is homeless, works at Progressive Plant community nursery in Copperton Friday, April 17, 2015. The Salt Lake City Police Department Metro Support Bureau has launched a Job A Day initiative to help homeless people, some of whom have criminal records, gain employment.

SALT LAKE CITY — For half of his life, Brandon Kitchen has been in federal prison.

The last part of his prison stay was in Florence, Colorado, at what is colloquially known as supermax, the highest security prison in the country.

Cells there have a tiny, single window just 4 inches wide.

"It's been said you can go there and not so much as see a single blade of grass," Kitchen said.

It's no small wonder that he, in particular, is relishing his new surroundings. Kitchen, who is newly homeless after his release from a federal halfway house, has a job at a wholesale nursery thanks to the Salt Lake City Police Department's new Job A Day initiative.

Workers pot flowers, plants, shrubs and trees, and load and unload trucks at Progressive Plants Inc., a wholesale nursery on 101 acres in Copperton.

"It's nice. It's pretty out there. But it's work, make no mistake," he said.

The Job A Day program operates out of the department's Metro Support Bureau, led by Deputy Chief Fred Ross.

After opening the bureau in the summer of 2014, Ross launched a support group for homeless women to hear their concerns. Shortly thereafter, he started one for men. He soon learned that one of their greatest challenges is getting a job, particularly if they have criminal backgrounds, no identification or poor work histories.

A police department is not an employment agency, Ross said, but he wanted to find a way to assist people who need jobs. So he partnered with Nexeo, a temporary agency, to place homeless men and women in day labor jobs.

"This is not rocket science. It's thinking outside the box, looking to help people who really need a hand up. With a little help, we can get them going in the right direction again," Ross said.

People who want to work meet outside the bureau shortly before 7 a.m. each workday. Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul dining room provides each worker a sack lunch, which they take to the work site. Ross drives workers to the nursery in a van and picks them up when their shift ends.

The half-hour drive is bonding time among the workers and Ross. They tell him about their days, and he works hard to return the workers, most of whom stay at the Road Home, to Rio Grande Street in time for dinner at "Vinny's." He also reminds them of a nearby AA meeting they can attend.

Otherwise, people participating in the work program who are on the job during the hours that most shelter users reserve beds for the night have to wait outside until after 10 p.m. to be allowed into the shelter.

"They should give people who have jobs first priority," Ross said.

On Friday morning, Kitchen was among six workers the nursery requested for the day's work.

Kitchen, 39, said he was grateful for the opportunity to work and get out of the Rio Grande neighborhood for the day.

"Beyond the self-respect and paycheck, it's an escape from the madness of that," he said.

Janet Simonich, owner of Progressive Plants, said the initiative helps provide workers she needs in spring and early summer to prepare and tend flowers, ornamental bushes and trees. "Labor is our lifeblood," she said.

Cameron Allcott, Simonich's son who manages the nursery's production and oversees IT among many other duties, said the Job A Day initiative is working well.

"Most of the employees we get are excited to be here," he said.

While some of the workers have worked on farms, others "are a little bit like fish out of water. They probably didn't know what to expect working at a nursery."

Allcott said he is grateful for good workers and he is mindful of their situations. "Every single one of us is one circumstance from being in their same circumstance. There's no judgment here," he said.

Some of the best workers at the nursery have "graduated" to higher-paying warehouse jobs elsewhere, according to Ross.

"Although I'm sad to see some of our guys go, it's because they got an awesome job, and that's great," Simonich said.

Ross, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology, wears the uniform of a police officer but spends much of his day functioning as a social worker.

Salt Lake has many services to assist homeless people, but it is often officers under Ross' command whom people ask for help. Officers who work in the Metro Support Bureau need to be knowledgable about community resources and find innovative ways to help a segment of the population that typically has poor physical health, may be struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and generally have not had good experiences with authority figures.

Ross has one cardinal rule for officers who interact with homeless people: "Do not ever let them down."

That means Ross encourages creative problem-solving — something that his boss, Police Chief Chris Burbank, likes to see, too.

"He just gives me the green light to do what I think is right," Ross said.

Recently, Ross encountered a woman he knows who was panhandling at The Gateway. When he asked her what she needed, she told him she needed money to wash her children's clothing.

"I know her. I don't have any reason to think she would lie to me. I gave her some cash and she left," he said. The following week, the woman's husband stopped Ross on the street to thank him.

"I don't know if they used the money for burgers or what," Ross said. But the man told him that no police officer had ever treated his family so kindly.

The deputy chief knows many homeless people by name, offering them help.

Kay Adams, who calls herself Ross' "street mom," walked over to his car Friday to say hello. She has a loose tooth, but said she couldn't see a dentist until Monday. Ross offered to take her to a clinic at the University of Utah on Friday, but she refused.

"You never, ever let me help you. Why is that?" he asked.

"I've made it this far on my own," Adams said.

Ross often walks along 500 West encouraging people to use the Metro Support Bureau as a resource. "This is what I call my preaching," he said, clutching a handful of cards that invite homeless men and women to twice-weekly meetings at the bureau.

"Anyone in this group ready to work?" he asked.

Stephen Freeze tells Ross that he has a neurological disability but he wants a job.

Ross invites him to the next support group, explaining that he will invite someone from Columbus Community Center, a Salt Lake nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities live and work in the community, to assist him.

"The stuff this guy is doing to help us that is way, way good," said Freeze, who has been homeless off and on since 2006.

"This guy cares. It's not lip service. His lip service is, 'We're going to do this.'"