Some Western cities use trash cleanup to combat homelessness

Cities are investing thousands of dollars in clean up programs during the pandemic.

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near South Dearborn Street in Seattle's Chinatown-International District, Feb. 25, 2019 (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

At her lowest, Resheemah “RoRo” White was living in a tent or sleeping on park benches or beneath an underpass in Oakland, California, fearful that her life had bottomed out and she would never make it back.

White had been laid off from her warehouse job at the Port of Oakland, her mother had died, and she could no longer afford an apartment.

“I was just a victim of circumstances and that’s why I ended up homeless,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “I felt like I was nothing. People judged me for living in a tent. They said, ‘She just ain’t nothing.’ ”

Then a friend told her about a city-funded program run by the Downtown Streets Team, a California-based nonprofit giving stipends to homeless residents to pick up trash around the city. White was all in.

The program provided her with gloves, bags, pickers, dustpans and carts and sent her to different parts of Oakland to clean up trash on sidewalks and in the park. She received a $120-a-week stipend, which she saved up to rent an apartment.

“At first, I said, ‘Picking up trash?’ I had to let my pride go — and I did,” said White, 49. “This program changed my life and my whole outlook and perspective.”

White did so well that she now leads a team that goes into the homeless community and recruits workers. The Downtown Streets Team also helped her find a second job as a residential counselor for another nonprofit that assists people without homes in getting housing.

“I work about 60 hours a week now. Two jobs,” White said. “I’ve come a long way.”

The pandemic has financially stressed millions of Americans, and homelessness has increased. As state and local officials struggle to deal with this, some are investing in programs such as the one that helped White, employing people who don’t have jobs or homes while beautifying streets and neighborhoods.

This story was republished from Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Some cities are investing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in such programs during the pandemic, including Fort Worth, Texas; Portland; Pueblo, Colorado, and Tacoma.

In California, the state Department of Transportation is set to spend a whopping $150 million over three years to expand a program that provides money to nonprofit and governmental job placement agencies so they can hire people who are homeless or who were incarcerated to clean trash and graffiti from highways, roads and other public spaces, with an opportunity to move into full-time jobs.

The money will come out of the state’s $1.1 billion Clean California initiative, which Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in June. The initiative’s overall goal is to enhance California’s streets and public spaces in partnership with local governments.

“As a state, we benefit when people are moving from homelessness into housing and into full-time employment. That’s a huge benefit. And we beautify our highways and roadways,” Clean California program manager Adriana Surfas said in an interview with Stateline. “It’s aimed at taking a holistic approach to address the problem of litter.”

In Oakland, where RoRo White lives, the city allocated $500,000 for the Downtown Streets Team to launch and operate the trash pickup program. It paid $250,000 for a fellowship program for participants like White who graduate to the next level, according to Romie Nottage, a senior director at the nonprofit.

It’s one of 16 cities in Northern California that contracts with Downtown Streets, which helps those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, Nottage said.

Participants are considered volunteers who take two- to four-hour shifts on two, three or five days a week and work with a case manager and employment specialist. They receive $100 to $300 a week, usually in the form of a gift card for groceries, clothing or other basic needs. The program doesn’t pay cash or by check, but it will pick up the tab for cellphone bills or storage units, Nottage said.

Those involved in the fellowship program get paid directly — $17.19 an hour. The program lasts for 90 days and then tries to hire participants full-time or get them placed in jobs.

Since the program began in Palo Alto, California, in 2005, Nottage said, more than 1,200 participants have gotten full-time jobs, and about the same number have received housing.

White said that, as an outreach specialist, she tries to spread the word and get as many people interested in the program as she can.

“For some, this is what they choose,” she said of those experiencing homelessness. “But I tell them, ‘One day you’re going to be tired of being tired. I’m here with you for the long term.’ My motto is: You take one step, I’ll take two.”

A U.S. Housing and Urban Development report last March found that 580,466 people in the country experienced homelessness on a single night in 2020, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2%, from 2019. Homelessness increased significantly among those sleeping outside or in places not meant for living, the report found.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem by limiting in-person social services and causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs or homes. That makes the trash pickup jobs more important than ever, government officials and nonprofits say.

In Portland, the city launched a one-year pilot program in February in partnership with Ground Score, a nonprofit that pays homeless people to pick up trash. As of late August, the program had employed 72 workers who collected more than 60,000 pounds of trash, according to Katie Lindsay, coordinator of Portland’s homelessness reduction program.

Workers get paid $20 an hour; coordinators, who work full-time, get paid $25 an hour, Lindsay said. Workers often are sent to pick up trash at homeless encampments, which are scattered across the city, but they also remove litter in other areas.

City officials used existing funds for the pilot but have allocated $300,000 for next year.

“It’s been wildly successful,” Lindsay said. “It provides income opportunities for folks who have been historically excluded from government work. It provides a critical service for the community. And it has environmental benefits.”

Fort Worth, Texas, has a $500,000-a-year contract for a litter cleanup program with UpSpire, a program operated by the Presbyterian Night Shelter, a homeless service provider. Workers get paid $10 to $12 an hour to start, said Kirsten Ham, who runs the UpSpire program.

Seventeen workers are now employed full-time under the city contracts, Ham said, and get benefits, including health care and 401(k) matches, as well as housing support.

In California, since 2013, the Bakersfield Homeless Center has employed more than 300 people for its litter cleanup program on highways and city streets, said Andrew Miles, the labor development manager.

Miles said 119 people have gone on to get full-time jobs, and 516 have gotten housing for themselves and their families.

“I can go down the streets and see the difference that has been made by my crews daily, where there used to be trash and debris and it’s not there anymore,” Miles said.

Some of the program’s funding comes from the city and some from a penny sales tax increase voters passed in 2018 to improve public safety and address homelessness. Another portion comes from the Kern Council of Governments, the area’s metropolitan planning agency.

Ahron Hakimi, the council’s executive director, said that when he served in Iraq in 2005, he observed piles of trash along the road. After he returned to the United States, some roads around Kern County reminded him of Iraq. That bothered him.

After he was hired as the council’s executive director in 2012, he talked with officials there about his concern. The following year, the council began funding a roadside safety program that enrolled incarcerated people and hired homeless residents to pick up debris on state highways.

Over the years, the program stopped relying on incarcerated individuals and focused on those experiencing homelessness.

The council gives about $400,000 a year to the Bakersfield Homeless Center to run two programs — one in the city and the other in the rest of the county, according to Hakimi.

“The main purpose for us is to improve safety along our highways,” he said. “The fact that we’re using homeless individuals to do that is a co-benefit.”

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Johnny Ross, 49, said he loved participating in Bridge to Work, a city-funded program begun in 2019 and run by the Canvas Community Church.

“It was really great,” said Ross, who has struggled with cocaine addiction and has been living on the streets on and off for years. “It gave me a little something to do and I liked the work.”

The program came to a halt during the pandemic, but the city wants to restart it and is moving forward with the bidding process. Ross, who used his pay for necessities, said he’s eager to see it return. He’d like to eventually earn enough to buy a pickup truck or van.

“You’re making honest money,” he said. “I’m hoping it starts again. I’ll be the first one there every morning.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal is a veteran journalist who covers transportation, infrastructure, and cybersecurity for Stateline.