Tony Colin describes himself as a coach. Out daily with his five-person team, he gives them tips to improve their technique and stay healthy.
His sport? Picking up trash.
Colin supervises Share’s Talkin’ Trash program, which employs people who are currently or formerly homeless to clean up litter in Vancouver. His employees removed 267 tons of trash last year from 60 sites around Vancouver.
“That bag is pretty heavy,” Colin called out to one of his employees Monday as the man bent over to heave a black garbage bag into the back of a pickup.
“We’re going to work together. One, two, three,” Colin said, demonstrating how two people should lift it.
Colin’s degree in kinesiology comes in handy with his employees doing such physical work.
“There’s no reason to hurt ourselves. We always want to work together, that’s one of the things about Talkin’ Trash,” he said.
The program, which began in 2017, pays Washington’s minimum wage of $15.74 per hour for five, full-time positions. Its 2023 proposed budget is $363,420, to be funded by city grant awards, more than half of which would go to salaries.
Beyond this modest financial stability, Talkin’ Trash offers a transitional job opportunity that can set people up for other employment going forward. Of the program’s 25 participants in 2022, eight graduated to a more permanent employer or schooling. Seven found housing.
Domenoch Carr lived at The Outpost, Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community, when he got connected with Talkin’ Trash.
“I heard these guys were hiring, so I figured I better stop feeling sorry for myself and do something,” Carr said. He added the work gets difficult at times — “but what job doesn’t?”
Talkin’ Trash employees get around
Talkin’ Trash staff remove litter from parks, sidewalks and other public areas. They take out garbage bags left by people living outside or in vehicles. They clean up abandoned camps and illegal dump sites, which often include discarded couches and mattresses.
Mondays are the busiest day, as the team picks up trash accumulated over the weekend. This past Monday, despite the cold rain, Colin and three employees donned safety vests, metal grabbers and gloves, loading bag after bag of trash into the truck.
David Powell, who lives at the city’s Hope Village Safe Stay Community, tagged along with Colin’s team to see if the job might be a good fit for him. Powell, 62, served in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years and has a background in janitorial and warehouse work. Talkin’ Trash could get him back on his feet, he said.
Colin and Powell met the rest of the team at a cul-de-sac in Vancouver’s Lincoln neighborhood known for illegally dumped old furniture, according to Colin. The team goes there almost every day and always finds new trash.
Before them lay a daunting task — a large bookshelf, chairs, cardboard boxes, a broken mirror and piles of other abandoned items soaked in the steady rain.
The men got straight to work, shoveling trash into bags. Fifteen minutes later, the site was clean and the truck was packed with garbage. They hopped back in their vehicle, off to their next stop.
Employees always introduce themselves before removing someone’s abandoned items, but sometimes people living outside become hostile.
Avoiding confrontations is a big challenge, said Vernon Naugle, who’s worked at Talkin’ Trash for seven weeks.
“If they choose to be angry or they approach you in what I would call an unsafe manner, you don’t want to be around that,” Naugle said.
In these instances, Naugle said it’s best to “just approach someone and ask them if there’s any way you can help and be of assistance.”
Also potentially dangerous is picking up needles and syringes, or “sharps.” They are carefully disposed of in a red plastic box. Colin is sure to put safety first, never asking his employees to do something he wouldn’t do.
“I am in the trenches with them,” he said.
Colin understands this work isn’t for everyone. He tries to accommodate for the various struggles that might stand in the way of his workers holding a job.
“We want them to understand that this is a real job; this is where they can gain real work experience,” he said. “What we also try to do is be flexible and mindful. Maybe that individual might have some barriers. Maybe they might not have access to internet to send an email.”
With this in mind, Colin knows not all people experiencing homelessness are in the proper mental and physical space to work.
“My program does have a higher turnover rate than other programs or other employers, but that’s simply because sometimes an individual might not be ready,” Colin said. “But we always welcome the individual, and I think that’s one of the things that Share does is give people that opportunity.”
If employees need to leave the program because it’s not a good fit, Colin said he always respects that decision. He wants them to use the program as a stepping stone, whether it be toward permanent housing or other employment.
Through this approach, Colin works to ensure that picking up trash can become a source of empowerment.
“I come with the attitude: This is my scope,” he said. “I am a supervisor here. I can provide tools. I’m not a therapist. I’m also someone that can coach individuals and give them the information that I have learned in this field.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.