Connie Hemphill always tries to keep a positive outlook on life, even when life hasn't always been too kind.
"You just have to keep going," he says. “When times get tough, I just pray and ask God to give me the hope to get through it.”
It is that attitude and perseverance that has helped Hemphill make it through the tough times and land the job of his dreams as a maintenance specialist with the City of Palo Alto, working to abate graffiti all over the City.
“I love this job,” Hemphill says. “This is what I have been waiting for, and I know I am going to be okay for now.”
The past several years have been especially tough on Hemphill. Although he had more than 35 years of experience in construction, when the economy slumped several years ago, work slowed down for him and he lost his longtime, well-paying job. He says he struggled for years to find another good job.
“Things really slowed down and people weren’t hiring anymore,” he says. “Right now, construction is still really slow and there is not a lot of work out there. You can find some, but it’s not consistent.”
With some money saved, Hemphill says he got by for a while, but eventually it ran out.
“That’s when I became homeless,” he says.
Along with his wife, he slept in his truck in San Jose while trying to figure out a way to get them out of their situation.
Hemphill had been homeless on and off for the past four years, but he never gave up on trying to better his situation. He found temp jobs here and there and took a job working at McDonald’s in Palo Alto, anything to make ends meet.
“Basically, I slept in my truck wherever I worked at, then went to public restrooms to bathe before going to wherever I was working at the time,” he says. “It was a bad time, but I was determined to get me and my wife off the streets.”
It was while working at McDonald’s that he heard about Downtown Streets Team and everything changed.
“A friend told me about the Streets Team and at first I blew it off,” he said. “After a while, things got bad so I decided to go see what it was all about. I went to a meeting and it sounded like where I needed to be.”
The Downtown Streets Team organization was originally run out of the Palo Alto Business Improvement District to try and address two problems plaguing the downtown area—panhandling and trash accumulation. In 2005, Executive Director Eileen Richardson, took the lead and Downtown Streets became a certified 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. She was the only employee until her son joined nearly one year later as the Director of Operations. Today, Downtown Streets Team has 33 employees and is growing, launching branches in other Bay area cities.
As a member of Downtown Streets Team, Hemphill worked in and around Palo Alto City Hall and along University Avenue. He took great pride in making sure the streets and garages were spotless. After a year, he was promoted to manager, overseeing the teams in the area.
“With the Streets Team I built a really good reputation,” he says. “I was always on time and I tried to be a good example to everyone. In two and half years, I missed only one day.”
One of the areas Hemphill was responsible for while working for the Streets Team was the parking garage at City Hall. Through his work there, he met many City employees and began to get a feel for what working for the City of Palo Alto would be like.
“I saw how things were run and the standards that the City kept and I knew I wanted to work there,” he says.
Since he was assigned a case worker through Downtown Streets Team to help him find employment, he reached out to her and told her of his desire to work for the City, asking for her help. He also talked to the employees he had met along the way getting any pointers they had on landing a job with the City.
“Connie came to me and told me he specifically wanted to work for the City,” says Michelle Fox, an employment specialist with Downtown Streets Team. “We really try to focus on where people want to work, and help them get a job there.”
Each time a City job was listed that he thought could be a fit, he worked with Fox and applied. But the competition was stiff and nothing was coming together in the beginning.
“Every job had like 200 people applying for it,” he says. “I applied to about 15 to 20 jobs before this one. I never gave up though. I just kept trying and kept networking.”
When the job he now has was posted, he says he knew it was the job for him.
“I said, 'I know I can do this job,’” he says. “I have been in construction for 36 years and I know I got something they can use.”
And he was right. He was offered the part-time position and began on April 7.
“I was ecstatic. I had tears in my eyes when I found out,” he says. “It has been 10 years since I have had a good job.”
Fox says she was excited for Hemphill and always kept the faith that he could land his dream job.
“I kept telling him that it can happen,” she says. “It was a long process but we never gave up, and it’s nice to see it come full circle. It’s also nice to be able to say if Connie can do it, so can anyone else.”
Now he is taking the work ethic he had with the Streets Team and applying it toward his new position.
“I just want to learn my job and be the best I can be at it,” he says. “And I want to uphold the City just like I did the Streets Team and be an example.”
Working in the City’s Public Works Department, he says all of his coworkers have been welcoming and helpful. He hopes that he can stay with the City until the day he retires.
“Connie’s coworkers are excited to have him aboard as many knew him from seeing him work for the Downtown Streets Team,” said Steve Banks, the City’s Public Works manager of maintenance operations. “We’re all hoping he enjoys his job and that doors to a fulltime position can open up for him sooner rather than later.”
In his new position, he often runs into his former Streets Team friends and coworkers around the City, and he hopes that his success will inspire them to keep working hard and show them that anything is possible.
“A lot of people are watching me so I want to show them that by being on the Team, good things can happen,” he says. “I got out here and I got a better job through the Streets Team by being patient and doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Today, Hemphill and his wife live in an apartment in East Palo Alto and he is optimistic about the future and all that it holds. He is also very passionate about giving back to those who helped him get where he is today and helping the homeless in Palo Alto get off the streets.
“The Streets Team has been the greatest thing that has happened to me in a long, long time. I have basically been trying to get back on my feet for 10 years,” he says. “I want to help other people have the chance I got so I do outreach for the Streets Team when I am not working. That’s something that it seems like God has put in my hands, and I am going to continue to do it until I can’t anymore.”