But Clean Slate wasn’t Fort Worth’s first foray into working with people dealing with homelessness. Budget cuts during the recession led Fort Worth to get creative. The city began partnering with Goodwill Industries to employ homeless people—who, as Brandon Bennett puts it, “sometimes take better care of their pets than themselves”—to staff animal shelters for a modest but fair wage, along with job training. The success of that arrangement prompted Bennett to approach Clean Slate when litter pickup was moved under his purview. Bennett put out a request for a proposal, knowing that some private contractors would come out with lower bids than Clean Slate, but working with a shelter would support a social good by providing an avenue out of homelessness.
“[Fort Worth’s contract with Goodwill] was motivated by saving money and implementing a socially responsible program, but saving money came first. What we decided with the Clean Slate program was that we wouldn’t have money as the first criteria. We flip-flopped it and said, ‘How can we be more socially responsible and do it at as low a cost as possible?’” Bennett said.
Clean Slate employees start above Texas’ minimum wage; those on the litter crew earn between $8 and $10 an hour. They also receive life skills training, job training, and housing at the shelter. For employees working more than 30 hours a week, Clean Slate subsidizes benefits, including healthcare.
The Fort Worth contract stipulates Clean Slate will receive $50,000 annually to pick up trash twice a day, seven days a week, in the area around several homeless shelters, where loitering often occurs. The city is planning to expand the territory—at a cost of up to an additional $300,000—into urban neighborhoods.
Several cities, including Albuquerque, Denver, and Chicago, have rolled out similar programs. Fort Worth’s sister city, Dallas, looked into hiring the homeless for litter pickup, but according to Wayne Walker, who has worked to disciple the homeless in Dallas for 17 years, the incentive for the would-be workers wasn’t there. He said panhandlers in Dallas make an average of $50 an hour, so taking a significant pay cut for an honest day’s work is a hard sell.
“In the Christian world of discipleship, we teach accountability and integrity and character,” Walker said. “Discipleship is the way you help someone keep a job, not only teaching them job skills and how to build a resumé.”