Cities see garbage cleaning programs as a way to tackle homelessness

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Down below, Resheemah “RoRo” White lived in a tent or slept on park benches or under an underpass in Oakland, Calif., Fearing her life would hit rock bottom and never return.

White had been fired from her job in the Oakland Harbor warehouse, her mother had passed away, and she could no longer afford an apartment.

“I was just a victim of circumstances and that’s why I found myself homeless,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “I felt like I was nothing. People judged me because I lived in a tent. They said, ‘She just isn’t nothing.’ “

Next, a friend told him about a program funded by the city and run by the Downtown Streets Team, a California-based nonprofit that gives stipends to homeless residents to pick up trash in the city. The white was full.

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 stipend of $ 120 per week, which she saved to rent an apartment.

“At first I said, ‘Pick up the garbage? I had to let go of my pride and I did, ”said White, 49. “This program has changed my life and my whole vision and perspective.

White has been so successful that she is now leading a team that goes to 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 helps homeless people find housing.

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

The pandemic has put millions of Americans under financial stress and homelessness has increased. As state and local authorities struggle to deal with this, some are investing in programs like the one that helped White, employing people who don’t have jobs or homes while beautifying streets and neighborhoods. .

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

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In California, the state Department of Transportation will spend $ 150 million over three years to expand a program that provides money to nonprofit and government employment agencies so they can hire homeless people or who were incarcerated for cleaning up garbage and graffiti from highways. , roads and other public spaces, with the possibility of evolving into full-time jobs.

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

“As a state, we benefit when people move from homelessness to housing and full-time employment. This is a huge advantage. And we beautify our highways and our roads, ”said Adriana Surfas, manager of the Clean California program, in an interview with Stateline. “It aims to take a holistic approach to solving the waste problem.”

In Oakland, where RoRo White lives, the city has allocated $ 500,000 to the Downtown Streets team to start and operate the garbage collection program. He paid an additional $ 250,000 for a scholarship program for participants like White to take it to the next level, according to Romie Nottage, the association’s senior director.

It’s one of 16 cities in northern California that contracts with Downtown Streets, which helps people who are homeless or at risk, Nottage said.

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

Those involved in the scholarship program are paid directly – $ 17.19 per hour. The program lasts 90 days and then tries to hire them full time or place them in jobs.

Since the program began in Palo Alto in 2005, Nottage has reported that more than 1,200 participants have secured full-time jobs and about the same number have received housing.

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

“For some, that’s what they choose,” she said of the homeless. “But I tell them, ‘Someday you’re going to be tired of being tired. I am here with you for the long haul. My motto is, you take one step, I will take two.

A U.S. housing and urban development report last March found that 580,466 people in the country were homeless on a single night in 2020, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2%, from to 2019. significantly increased among those who sleep outdoors or in places not intended for life, according to the report.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem by limiting in-person social services and causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs or homes. This makes garbage collection tasks more important than ever, according to government officials and nonprofits.

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In Portland, Oregon, 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. At the end of August, the program employed 72 workers who were collecting more than 60,000 pounds of trash, according to Katie Lindsay, coordinator of the Portland Homelessness Reduction Program.

Workers are paid $ 20 an hour; the coordinators, who work full time, are paid $ 25 an hour, Lindsay said. Workers are often dispatched to pick up trash in homeless settlements, which are scattered across the city, but also to remove trash in other areas.

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

“It’s a huge hit,” Lindsay said. “It offers income opportunities to people who have historically been excluded from government work. It provides an essential service to the community. And it has environmental benefits.

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

Seventeen workers are now employed full-time under city contracts, Ham said, and receive benefits such as healthcare and 401 (k) connections, as well as housing assistance.

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

Miles said 119 people have found full-time jobs and 516 have secured housing for themselves and their families.

“I can take to the streets and see the difference that has been made by my teams on a daily basis, where there was garbage and debris and there is no more,” said Miles.

Part of the program’s funding comes from the city and others from a one-cent sales tax increase voters passed in 2018 to improve public safety and fight homelessness. Another part comes from the Kern Council of Governments, the region’s metropolitan planning agency.

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

After being hired as the board’s executive director in 2012, he spoke about his concerns with officials there. The following year, the council began funding a road safety program that enlisted incarcerated people and hired homeless people to pick up debris on state highways.

Over the years, the program moved away from relying on incarcerated people and focused on homeless people.

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

“The main goal for us is to improve safety along our highways,” he said. “The fact that we use homeless people to do this is a co-benefit. ”

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

“It was really great,” said Ross, who has battled cocaine addiction and has lived on the streets every now and then for years. “It gave me a little something to do and I enjoyed the job. ”

The program came to a halt during the pandemic, but the city wants to restart it and is moving forward with the tendering process. Ross, who used his paycheck for necessities, said he couldn’t wait to see him return. He would eventually like to earn enough money to buy a van or pickup truck.

“You honestly earn money,” he said. “I hope it starts again. I’ll be the first there every morning.


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