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Cleaning soiled streets

What even the most unappealing of jobs can teach about human dignity

Cleaning soiled streets

Terrie (Sophia Lee)

It was bright and early in the morning when I spotted a fresh pile of excrement on the sidewalk, still glistening in a reddish brown splat, its stench alerting a gang of flies that it was time for breakfast. Meanwhile, I could feel my own half-digested breakfast tossing from my gut up to my gullet. 

I gulped, held my breath, and turned away. Terrie, on the other hand, didn’t blink an eye. Immediately she leapt forward, snapped on her gloves, and shook out her giant trash bag. The poop was too fresh to collect with her picker, so she cut out a piece of cardboard and used it to scoop the buzzing, stinking feces into the trash bag. She did it without any fuss or complaint, not even a nose wrinkle. I dipped an invisible hat to her. 

I was in San Diego that morning, following a cleanup crew that lives in a homeless tent shelter. The city of San Diego has funded the building and operation of this shelter, called a “bridge shelter” to emphasize its goal of moving the homeless from streets to housing, but otherwise, the nonprofit organization Alpha Project runs the shelter’s day-to-day management. (See my story about these city-funded bridge shelters in the April 28 issue of WORLD.) Other than helping its residents find housing, social services, and employment, Alpha Project also runs Wheels of Change, a program that pays bridge shelter residents $11.50 an hour to pick up litter and enhance nearby neighborhoods.

The idea behind Wheels of Change is twofold: First, it is to foster a good relationship with neighbors who might be wary of having a homeless shelter in their community. Second, it is to help bridge shelter residents gain purpose and transitional employment while giving back to the community. Next to the bridge shelter are two public schools— one elementary, other K-12— and the neighborhood they’re in is rough. A few blocks away is San Diego’s most concentrated population of homeless, and some of them travel over to this neighborhood to deal and shoot drugs. The job of Wheels of Change is to keep it clean and safe for the kids by picking up the remnants of those activities before the children find them. 

So far, the program has become so popular with the neighbors that they donated enough for Alpha Project to send cleanup crews three days a week, up from two days a week. Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy told me Wheels of Change helps the shelter residents find joy and worth in service-based work: “They were never the first one to be picked, never the first one to be looked at as an asset.” With Wheels of Change, they’re now working in a team, earning money, and “they just have a ball.” 

I’m not sure “having a ball” is how I’d describe picking up human feces and used condoms, but Terrie says she looks forward to it. In fact, she likes it so much that every day, she pulls her black plastic gloves on, stretches a hair net over her gray-streaked bob, wraps an apron around her waist, and shrugs on a neon orange vest over her T-shirt. She’s a regular sight in the neighborhood, shuffling around alleys and sidewalks with her broom and trash picker, snapping up crushed juice packets, cigarette butts, and the not-so-rare excrement. 

“God gave me a second chance in life,” she told me, her picker never stopping to grab whatever trash she spots. “So I love to give back, every last little drop.” She paused for a while to rustle into her pocket until she pulled out three dollar bills. “Look!” she said, beaming. “People appreciate my work so much that they gave me money!” 

As I trailed behind her, Terrie told me she’s 60 years old and has been homeless for more than two years, mostly crashing at other people’s homes. I couldn’t imagine a woman like Terrie on the streets—she’s well on in her years, walks with a limp, and doesn’t look like a typical person with street smarts. She said she had been hospitalized three times in the last several years, at least once for trying to commit suicide. 

The hardest part about being homeless, she told me, is that “people think they’re above me.” Friends and strangers rejected her, and some people “bullied” her, she said. That was all she would tell me: When I tried to ask her more, she shut off and pulled inward, as though trying to dispel bad memories. I stepped away. It was clear that Terrie feels she’s at a better place in life, now that she’s living in a bridge shelter with the hope of moving into permanent housing soon. No need to drag her back into dark places.

As the Wheels of Change crew scattered around the streets, a team leader reminded them, “Watch out for the paraphernalia, y’all! Remember, they go into the hazardous waste section!” Ten minutes later, someone shouted, “Needle! I found a needle!” And off Terrie zoomed, as fast as she could with her limp.


  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 04/25/2018 08:36 pm

    There is no such thing as a meaningless menial task. My dad solved complex naval problems by day and cleaned church toilets by night. What a hero!