How a TED Talk and a used van turned this teen into a fighter for the homeless

Nov 7, 2020, 7:48 PM
To date, Wheels of Change workers have removed 180 tons of trash from San Diego's streets. (Wheels ...
To date, Wheels of Change workers have removed 180 tons of trash from San Diego's streets. (Wheels of Change)
(Wheels of Change)

(CNN) — Kevin Barber was just 15 years old when he had an idea that would change downtown San Diego.

His mother, Dr. Carolyn Barber, worked in a busy emergency room and would come home with stories about the homeless patients she had treated there.

“We were trying to figure out if there was some kind of work program or something that we do for the homeless instead of just treating them with medicines,” Dr. Barber said.

One night, Barber — who is now 19 — found a TED Talk from Albuquerque’s then-mayor Richard Berry, titled “A practical way to help the homeless find work and safety.”

The former mayor had launched an initiative to help the homeless by giving them a day job, paying them to clean up the streets. It worked so well, he encouraged other cities to try it.

The idea piqued Barber’s interest. After doing some more research, he started a GoFundMe account to help launch his own version of the program in San Diego called Wheels of Change. The non-profit, which he launched at age 16, offers employment to those in need, helps keep the city clean and works to end homelessness.

A partnership to help end homelessness

At the beginning, getting Wheels of Change moving wasn’t easy. And to make his dream a reality, Barber needed to find an organization to partner with.

The obvious choice was Alpha Project, a San Diego-based non-profit focused on ending the cycle of homelessness in the city’s most vulnerable populations.

Bob McElroy, who was once homeless himself, runs the Alpha Project. At first, he was skeptical of the teen with the big idea.

“I thought it was a college project or something,” McElroy said.

He said he’s seen many students with the best of intentions volunteer to work on homeless causes. Most are scared away when they encounter their first homeless person with severe mental illness.

But Barber, now a sophomore at Santa Clara University, kept showing up at his office.

McElroy liked the idea, but told the Barbers that for the program to really succeed, they needed to find a work supervisor everyone on the crew would look up to.

Enter Kenneth “K.B.” Allen, a former gang member who turned his life around and now encourages others to get off the street.

In his role with Wheels of Change, Allen drives the crew around town as they clean up trash, and shares encouraging words with everyone he comes across.

Once Allen was on board, McElroy and Wheels of Change sent off their first group of workers, many of whom had been jobless for decades.

“We put our first van out there and I’ll never forget, it was like sending my kids off to school,” McElroy said. “We had folks that I’ve known out here for 20, 25 years put on their bright construction vests … and they’re getting on a van to go out and work in the community. I was all choked up.”

Now, Wheels of Change employs 20 people a day, who are each paid $52 in cash at the end of their four-hour shift (with a lunch break in the middle).

The “stipends” or worker salaries are completely funded through donations to the non-profit. But after the program proved successful, the city began supporting the program too, contributing money for expenses like van maintenance and cleaning supplies.

Since the program launched in 2018, the workers have cleaned up over 180 tons of trash.

One of the organization’s biggest impacts has been picking up drug paraphernalia, especially in areas where there are kids around, some San Diego residents told CNN.

Some business owners also told CNN that they love seeing their front streets cleaned of debris. They frequently run outside to thank the workers.

“I got to see firsthand that actually everyone adored us and that we were doing a good thing for everybody, so people could actually walk down the streets and be safe,” said Kathleen Knight, who often works for the program.

Peter Seidler, one of the owners of the San Diego Padres, said the area around Petco Park is now cleaner, and that there are fewer people sleeping on the streets.

“It’s really remarkable that with all the effort that this city has put into helping homeless people for years and years, this is among the very best of programs that was conceived, and ultimately has been put into action and continues to grow,” Seidler said.

How a little cash can change a life

McElroy said it’s important to him that the homeless workers don’t spend their money on drugs or alcohol. He’s ensured the workers have bank accounts, and has brought local financial institutions down to the shelter so workers could set up their own accounts.

Workers said the money that they’ve earned has made a big impact.

“(It) makes you feel like you’re a citizen again,” said Louis Varga, who works for Wheels of Change.

Other workers have used the money to pay for college classes or transportation costs.

Sometimes, just a little cash can turn a life around.

Dr. Barber said she remembers when one of the homeless men that worked for Wheels of Change landed a job interview. He had a business suit to wear, but no dress shoes.

“So he came out, worked a couple of times, bought some new shoes and now he’s working over at the Hilton,” Dr. Barber said.

But there’s more to Wheels of Change than the financial impact.

One of the most important aspects of Wheels of Change is the peer-to-peer outreach that takes place. The workers talk to other homeless people and encourage them to get off the streets.

“I saw people coming into the facility for services that would have never gone to a shelter before,” McElroy said. “But because they heard from their brothers and sisters, and they had a relationship and a trust with them … they came into the facility. And some of those people are in permanent housing now.”

Wheels of Change graduate Cheryl Lozano is one of those success stories.

“I now have a job and am employed full-time,” she said. “I have my own home, I have a car, and most of all, I have my self respect back.”


A pair of Resource Advisors from the Coconino National Forest record data in Division Alpha as they...
Haley Brink, CNN meteorologist

Millions in the Southwest could see ‘dangerous and dire’ weather take shape, weather service says

Hot and windy weather conditions in the Southwest could create dangerous fire conditions.
5 months ago
For the first time in nearly 50 years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kensingto...
WJZ staff

Open house for Washington, D.C. Temple is the first in nearly 50 years

The Church of Jesus Christ of-Latter-day Saints will hold an open house for the Washington, D.C. Temple for the first time in nearly 50 years.
6 months ago
A traveler walks through the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on December 03, 2021 in Houston. ...
Tierney Sneed, CNN

CDC mask mandate for travelers no longer in effect following judge’s ruling, official says

A judge in Florida struck down a mask mandate for travelers on Monday.
6 months ago
FILE - Gilbert Gottfried performs at the Comedy Central "Roast of Roseanne" in Los Angeles on Aug. ...
The Associated Press

Gilbert Gottfried, actor and comic’s comic, dies at 67

Actor and comedian Gilbert Gottfried, 67, passed away Tuesday from a long illness.
6 months ago
A clerk weighs dried peppers for a customer inside Grand Central Market on March 11, 2022 in downto...
Anneken Tappe, CNN Business

Consumer price inflation hit a new 40-year high in March

The Consumer Price Index rose 8.5% for the year ended in March, not adjusted for seasonal swings.
6 months ago
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 04: Tiger Woods of the United States walks to the ninth tee during a pract...
Ben Morse, CNN

Tiger Woods intends to play in the Masters and thinks he can win

The 15-time major champion has been away from competitive golf for over a year, having suffered serious leg injuries in a car crash in February 2021.
6 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Prescription opioid...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?

Tax Tuesday: The Most Common Mistakes People Make When Filing Their Taxes

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.

Tax Tuesday: How will last year’s child tax credits affect you?

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.

Tax Tuesday: Key Information Before the Filing Deadline

Businesses can receive a credit of up to $5,000 per employee in 2020 and up to $21,000 per employee in 2021.
national heart month...
Intermountain Healthcare

National Heart Month: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Today to Keep You Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease
Joseph Smith Memorial Building...
Temple Square

The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is an icon of Salt Lake City | Why hosting an event at this beautiful location will make you a hero this year

Here's why hosting an event at the iconic Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City will make you a hero this year.
How a TED Talk and a used van turned this teen into a fighter for the homeless