SAN JOSE -- Pushing a yellow trash can saddled with a broom and dust collector, Marcellous McDonald, clad in a bright orange shirt and latex gloves, smiled as he passed a woman in need of a garbage can.

"Oh, don't worry, I can take that," he said to the woman as he relieved her of an empty cardboard box.

But McDonald's trash collection is so much more than that. The former high school peer counselor who has been living on the streets for months is part of a new program that puts the homeless to work picking up litter and sweeping leaves in downtown five days a week.

In return, the program gives them access to a host of benefits including housing and job placement, food and even background checks.

The program is still in its infancy, having only begun July 1, but already through word-of-mouth dozens are on a waiting list to become part of the cleaning effort, said assistant program manager Maureen Damrel.

"This is kind of a dream. I hope we do this forever," she said. "This partnership really is a fantastic opportunity."

The partnership is between San Jose's Groundwerx, a group that provides cleaning services to downtown San Jose, and the nonprofit Downtown Street Team, which works to reduce panhandling and homelessness in Silicon Valley.

The teams of homeless pick up trash once in the morning and once in the afternoon for a total of eight hours each weekday. The job not only gives participants the satisfaction of a job well-done but also gives them a way to hone traits like discipline, trust and responsibility, to help them get off the street in exchange for their services, according to organizers.

The opportunity could not have come at a better time for McDonald, who was in a slump after losing his job as a peer adviser at a high school in Fremont, falling prey to a drug addiction and "spiraling out of control," he said.

McDonald said the regularity of the job, coupled with his ability to bond with others in similar situations, has become a highlight in his struggle to regain his footing in his personal life. Recently hired at Levi's Stadium, McDonald beamed as he talked about how excited he was to finally get back on track with a job, as well as to have a better outlook on life. He even said he was aiming to one day own a home.

He added the program also gives him and others an opportunity to show San Jose residents that even though they may be homeless, they are working their way off the streets.

"People can be iffy about the homeless, and we are here to show that we don't want to be homeless anymore," McDonald said. "I might have lost my way, but I am getting there. Some people are slow to get back at it, some people pick up right where they left off."

Some are already well on their way to getting settled into a new and better life: Chester Shattuck, 53, who was also helping clean the downtown area with McDonald Wednesday, just moved into an apartment with his wife after being homeless for about four years.

Shattuck's success is something the partnership is hoping will continue.

As program participant Ron Harrison put it, "As long as there are cigarette butts on the sidewalk, there will always be a need for us."

Contact Katie Nelson at 408-920-5006 and follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.

in need of help?
Want to get involved in the downtown cleanup or looking for help with your homelessness? Meet with the Downtown Street Team to find out what resources are available to you:
In Sunnyvale, the team meets every Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. and the Ponderosa Park Community Center, located at 811 Henderson Ave.
In San Jose, the team meets every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at Grace Community Church, located at 484 E. San Fernando.
In Palo Alto, the team meets every Thursday at The Opportunity Center at 33 Encina Ave.
Source: The Downtown Street Team