San Jose youth corps lacks hazard training, audit shows
Homeless advocate Richard Scott at an encampment on the Guadalupe River Creek trail in February 2022. File photo.

    Since 1987, the San Jose Conservation Corps has enlisted thousands of young adults in job training programs, but nothing prepared them for what they uncovered while cleaning up parks and trails.

    A recent city audit found that some young adults weren’t trained to handle used needles, broken glass and other dangerous materials, which they encountered frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I was shocked to hear about the safety training,” said San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz, who went through the conservation corps program as a young adult.

    The corps was founded by former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer and former Councilmember Shirley Lewis. The corps employs young adults primarily from disadvantaged communities between the ages of 18 and 24. The program assists them with job training, education enrichment programs and environmental work, such as collecting recyclable materials and clearing litter from parks and trails.

    During the pandemic, corps members expanded their historic roles and helped clean up homeless encampments. Corps members also assisted the Second Harvest of Silicon Valley food bank with distribution, helping sort and package meals for hundreds of thousands of residents.

    Prior to this pandemic-era expansion, workers in the corps rarely encountered needles and other dangerous materials that could expose them to blood-borne pathogens, according to San Jose Conservation Corps CEO Dorsey Moore. But as homelessness in the region has skyrocketed, about half of the 370 cleanups conducted by the corps last year exposed workers to human waste and needles, according to the audit.

    Ortiz said he’s glad the audit identified areas where the nonprofit could improve, noting that he himself didn’t receive safety training for those conditions when he was enrolled in the corps.

    Councilmember Bien Doan also expressed concern about the lack of safety training for some corps workers. He suggested placing special containers in areas where unhoused residents dispose of used needles, so that the young adults working in the corps aren’t exposed to those dangers.

    During a review of the audit on Tuesday, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez quizzed Moore on the cracks in the corps’ safety training  and asked him why there hadn’t been better oversight. Moore said some members were absent on the day these safety trainings took place, an issue he aims to fix.

    “Safety is our top priority no matter what,” Moore said at the meeting. “We had some issues with absenteeism, and you have to be there every day for that training.”

    Jimenez expressed concern that these young adults aren’t being consistently trained to work around hazardous objects and materials. He questioned whether the safety of these youth, many of whom come from disadvantaged communities, is being taken seriously.

    “If these were Bellarmine boys out there doing some of this work, would we have taken a different approach?” Jimenez asked, referring to the elite private high school in San Jose. “Would we have more precautions?”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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