Jennifer Klein loves her job. It just so happens that her job is picking up other people’s trash.
“The busier I stay in a job, the better,” she said while removing litter along the Waterfront Renaissance Trail last week.
The 43-year-old has been a community cleaner for about 1 1/2 years, since the Talkin’ Trash program began. Although her job started as a part-time gig, the Talkin’ Trash program was expanded this year and Klein now works full time cleaning up Vancouver with two co-workers and a supervisor. They all get work training, benefits and paid time off — something that Klein, who has been homeless three times, greatly appreciates.
Talkin’ Trash is run by homeless service provider Share and funded by Vancouver’s solid waste department. Its employees are homeless or formerly homeless people. This year’s budget is $160,000, up from last year’s $72,000 pilot program.
“We decided to expand it because the need was there,” said Tanya Gray, the city’s solid waste supervisor.
The need is twofold: Addressing the city’s solid waste problems downtown and furthering Share’s mission of moving homeless people toward self-sufficiency. Gray said she has asked to renew funding for 2019.
For now, the four-person crew goes out in a pickup every weekday, collecting trash generated at homeless camps. They don’t pick up people’s belongings or tents. There’s a protocol they follow to determine whether a campsite has been abandoned.
Supervisor Matt Curry, 42, said campers were leery at first of his crew coming by to collect the trash. Now, many of the campers know who they are and will get a bag or pile of trash ready for pickup. Sometimes people apologize about the mess at their campsite and offer to help or ask for trash bags.
“It’s not just picking up trash. My job is 85 percent mental and dealing with campers,” said Curry, who was homeless as a young adult.
Katie Louis, who runs the Share House men’s homeless shelter downtown and supervises the Talkin’ Trash program, said the employees empathize with campers. They’ve been in their shoes.
“It brings so much authority to what they’re saying,” she said.
If somebody is sick or on vacation, there is list of a few homeless people who will work on-call. Although the crew’s primary job is to clean up campsites, they also deal with general littering and dumping. They go wherever they find a need, or sometimes get called to a site by the police department.
“It’s not just homeless that make a mess. It’s everybody,” Klein said. “Sometimes it boggles my mind the things and the messes that I see.”
They pick up a lot of abandoned furniture and tires. Some of the more unusual things they’ve collected over the last two months include a raft found near the downtown library and a toy kitchen near state Highway 500. In Rose Village they found refrigerators, a fish tank, strollers, ovens, computers, mattresses and printers.
Curry said they work on both public and private land within the city limits, typically on the west side of town where there are more homeless people. Between January and July, the crew collected 90 tons of trash. On its busiest day, the crew collected six truckloads.
“There’s a lot of trash out there,” Curry said. “I want to grow (Talkin’ Trash) to at least a four-team crew.”
One time they found 500 hypodermic needles. Curry said they’ve worked with Share’s outreach workers and the needle exchange program to educate campers about safely disposing of needles; as a result, the number of hypodermic needles collected between July and August went down.
The service they provide, Louis said, benefits both housed and unhoused people.
“They do a hard job that not many people would want to do,” she said. “I brag about them every chance I get.”
Gray said Talkin’ Trash is one way to address the community’s litter issue that’s seemingly been successful.
For Klein, working for Share has been a longtime dream. She enjoys her Talkin’ Trash co-workers, all of whom share a dry sense of humor. Curry, who is a journeyman carpenter by trade, shares a similar sentiment.
“I get more reward working with these guys,” he said.