Before the sun even started to warm the day, a team of four people pulled two red wagons onto a MAX train Monday. They got off near the Portland Convention Center and headed to work with their supplies in tow: garbage bags, plastic gloves, trash pickers and brooms.
They were tasked with picking up rubbish that spanned a handful of city blocks clustered in the Lloyd Center area. Their l atex-covered hands picked up discarded coffee cups, empty food containers, soiled clothes and a printer-fax machine.
The city of Portland has partnered with a nonprofit initiative named Ground Score, to tackle two needs: address the city’s growing trash problem and provide job opportunities open to people experiencing homelessness and who’ve only recently found housing.
“The program is incredibly successful,” said Barbra Weber, the Ground Score employee leading Monday’s crew. “But not for the obvious reasons, like the fact we have picked up so much trash. The bigger picture is the personal impact.”
The pilot program, which launched in mid-February, has employed nearly 30 people who are paid $20 an hour and have already collected more than 15,000 pounds of trash. The hours are flexible, allowing people to sign up for four- or eight-hour shifts when it fits their schedule. They can sign up for a single shift or ask to be scheduled on an ongoing basis.
Weber, who is paid $25 an hour as the coordinator, typically schedules two people for each shift and leaves one spot open to allow someone to show up that morning to ask for work. Soon, paid sick time will be built into the program.
While the program currently has five clean-up locations between the Lloyd Center and Downtown, the goal is to expand city wide, said Katie Lindsay, the coordinator for the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program who launched the partnership with Ground Score, an initiative of Trash for Peace that promotes community sustainability.
She wants other city departments to begin offering low-barrier jobs as well.
The county has similar goals in mind. Multnomah County’s lead homelessness official is proposing to spend $3 million from the Metro homelessness services bond on a jobs initiative that would hire 100 low-skilled workers in the coming year beginning July 1. That allocation will depend on whether County Chair Deborah Kafoury puts the request in her executive budget and the full commission approves it.
“(The money) could connect to the city’s pilot program, those are some of the details that still need to be worked out,” said Denis Theriault, communications coordinator for the joint city-county Office of Homeless Services. “We have a whole mess of partners doing similar work, so we will have to figure out how best to deploy this funding to amplify and fill gaps.”
While the handful of blocks the Ground Score program focuses on are much cleaner, the program will not solve all the city’s trash woes. However, the initiative has already deeply impacted those it has employed, Weber said.
THE PERSONAL IMPACT
The objective of the program, Lindsay said, is to offer people work opportunities that have typically eluded them due to circumstance. Being employed while experiencing homelessness is challenging, so providing jobs that are flexible lowers barriers to working while unhoused.
“We aren’t giving charity, but as a government, we are trying to find out how we excluded people from opportunities in the past and make those opportunities (like fair-paying city jobs) available for anyone,” she said.
Terry Blaka, 48, a frequent worker on Weber’s team, said the job is his sole source of income and has changed his life. He is currently living in transitional housing, waiting for a permanent housing placement.
“(The job) has helped me change my habits,” he said as he sat down to wait for the MAX after a three-hour shift on his feet picking up trash. “It is an honor to be a productive member of society and it’s a wonderful feeling how much people say they appreciate what we are doing as they walk by.”
Bud Foteff, who owns the Convention Center Auto Body shop, walked out of his shop to say hello on Monday as Weber’s team walked by on their route – something he does each time he sees them.
“The area behind my building was such a mess and I used to spend so much time picking up everything myself,” Foteff said. “It’s just amazing the noticeable huge difference they have made.”
About half of those employed by the program are currently homeless while the other half are newly housed, Weber said. But both need job opportunities – moving into a home after living on the streets can be a hard transition, she said.
“When people first call to ask about a job, I can hear the nervousness in their voice,” Weber said. “But as time moves on, when they realize this truly is low barrier, you can see that stress lift off when they realize they don’t have to be anything but themselves.”
The program is built to be inclusive and span physical abilities. Some trash routes are an easy walk around town while others entail heavy lifting and arduous work. Weber noted one worker has schizophrenia and twitches as he works.
“Maybe others might exclude him, but we just keep on working,” she said. “I also have some people who are still hard into their addiction, but for the time they are working, they are sober and interacting and feeling good. Our folks run the gambit of age and disability.”
As the team moved from one block to the other, they ran into Steve Schaff, 54, who has picked up work with Ground Score in the past. He yelled from his bike: “Hey, is that Ground Score?” and Weber yelled back, telling him she had him down on her worker list and would be calling him soon. Another man passed by and asked her if she had a business card – he was interested in work too.
“(The program) gave me structure,” Schaff said. “It really has helped our homeless community, and it gave me something that I had to be on time for on a certain day and time.”
Weber said she is continually floored at the impact the program has provided to individuals camping along the street. Some are physically disabled and have a hard time cleaning their tent area on their own.
When campers saw the team approach Monday, they began cleaning up their own spaces and walked bags of trash over to the red wagons. Weber offered them fresh garbage bags in exchange.
“Thank you, appreciate you,” one man said as the team carted his garbage away.
James Smith, 34, poked his head out of his blue tent. He asked the team not to touch one collection of what appeared to be trash but said everything else is fair game. Blaka, one of the workers, noted that he has learned a lot about the community in the past couple months: “I’ve learned how to interact with people, especially when asking people if we can clean up their spaces. It’s people’s foundations we are talking about, it’s all they got.”
Smith said the block that he calls home has improved since the trash team has started making regular rounds. By the end of the Monday shift, the team had filled five bags with 90 pounds of trash, a metric they measure with small handheld scales from which they hang each trash bag to check its heft.
“What they do, it helps take the heat and stress off,” Smith said. “Some people who were living in tents nearby were swept because their areas were really messy. This helps us keep our area clean. I really do appreciate what they do.”