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Memphis City Council talks tires, exercise, and, hopefully one day, jobs for the homeless.

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Last month, officials from the Memphis Police Department planned to arrest homeless people in an effort to get them off Midtown and Downtown streets.

The so-called sweep didn't come to much, but members of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center wonder if the area's homeless could participate in a sweep of a different kind.

Using a pilot program from Daytona Beach, Florida, as a model, the center hopes to give homeless people jobs.

"To deal with panhandling in their tourist area, they hired the downtown homeless to clean up litter and do some light janitorial and grounds-keeping work," said Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator of the center. "It also provides housing and vouchers for meals at various restaurants."

The program started in Daytona Beach last year as a collaboration between the Salvation Army, the chamber of commerce, and Daytona's equivalent of the Memphis Center City Commission. Since its inception, about 40 people have participated, with many of them moving out of the program and into transitional and even traditional housing.

"This is a program that can work and can deal with everyone's concerns and do it in a way that doesn't criminalize poverty," Watkins said. "This could be a positive step forward."

And it's another idea that could benefit both the city and its residents directly, similar to December's successful tire redemption program.

Last week, members of the Memphis City Council re-authorized another round of the Memphis Tire Redemption Program, an initiative that gave local residents $1 for every used and discarded tire they collected. By the time the program ran out of money — after just three days — the city had collected more than 57,000 used tires.

"The tire redemption plan came from a complaint around the city about holding second-hand tire dealers and haulers accountable," said council chair Harold Collins.

The city's public services, community enhancement, and legal departments came together last June to work on an ordinance for tire dealers. Then the discussion turned to what could be done about the illegal tire dumps already in existence.

The city's public works division generally picks up 50,000 to 100,000 used and discarded tires each year. It takes them about four days to clean up a dump site of 10,000 tires. Or roughly the same amount of time it took area citizens to bring them 57,000 tires.

"We thought, what if we got citizens involved? The rest, as they say, is history," Collins said. "One thing we didn't consider was how many people were unemployed and needed the money. That was the motivating factor. People who didn't have money for the holidays saw an opportunity to make money."

For the second round of the program, the city and county have both committed to another $50,000 each. They hope to negotiate a reduced rate from the company that disposes of the tires. They also are thinking of reducing the number of tires each person can turn in at a time in order to make the redemption money last longer.

"We don't know how many tires are out there in this county causing environmental hazards," Collins said. "Heaven forbid if one of these tire dumps catches fire."

On the same day, Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn proposed closing Madison Avenue to vehicular traffic from Downtown to Midtown on Sunday mornings. Flinn said the idea was one way to address Memphis' perennial ranking as one of the fattest and least active cities in the country.

"You make it a safe urban trail for bikers, rollerbladers, people with strollers," Flinn said. "It's the idea that we need to provide available space for our community to exercise and recreate in a safe way."

Last year, New York's Summer Streets program closed a section of Park Avenue for three Saturdays in August from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The website for the program calls it "part bike tour, part block party," and "a great time for exercise, people watching, and just enjoying summer mornings." Led by the New York Department of Tranportation, the program is modeled on other programs in Bogota and Paris.

Other council members weren't totally sold on the idea, but they asked Flinn to come back in two weeks with more information about the potential cost and feedback from area businesses. Even amid concerns about closing the street around the Madison hotel and Mississippi Boulevard Baptist Church, however, council members talked about doing a pilot program in the spring and summer.

"There are some technical wrinkles that will have to be worked out ... but I'm confident those will be worked out," Flinn said. "We chose Sunday specifically because it's a church day. Most businesses will be closed at that time, and we're not doing the full amount of Madison to avoid residential problems."

When it comes down to it, it's a street, and there are always going to be issues when you close a street, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

What I'm really interested is that the council, and maybe the city at large, doesn't seem to be scared of new ideas.

They might not ultimately decide to implement all of them, but the fact that the status quo isn't sacrosanct gives me hope for all the other "crazy" ideas out there, such as giving homeless people jobs rather than arresting them, or metro consolidation.

People seem to want to see change ... and I think that might be a change in itself.

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