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Let’s clean up this town!

Clean Slate employees at work (Jennifer Smith/Unearthed Photography)

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Let’s clean up this town!

Homeless residents pick up trash—and life skills—in Texas city

The sun is rising over south Fort Worth. The tinny “clink” of soda cans hitting the pavement, jettisoned from trash in a dumpster, and the thundering sound of trash bins rolling across asphalt make it hard to hear Nicole, the litter crew supervisor for Clean Slate. Nicole is quiet, serious, and reserved—no nonsense.

She’s easy to spot in her day-glow yellow work vest; I follow her through the humid streets surrounding Presbyterian Night Shelter, picking up fast-food wrappers, cigarette butts, discarded grocery sacks, and the like. Unopened boxes of raisins, sleeves of crackers, and feminine hygiene products pepper the median, castoffs from well-intentioned care packages for the homeless.

“Don’t mess with Texas” isn’t just a catchy slogan. Wide open spaces that collect debris and wind that blows trash out of dumpsters and trash cans—not to mention people who throw trash out of cars as they drive down interstates that crisscross the city—make litter a real problem in this area near downtown Fort Worth. And litter is a lot like graffiti; if it’s not addressed quickly, the problem will grow.

“Every day we’re picking up tons—literally tons—of litter that is illegally dumped. Like 4,000 tons of miscellaneous litter, so if you weigh out a potato chip bag, and you equate out how much a potato chip bag weighs to make 4,000 tons, that’s a lot of litter,” said Brandon Bennett, director of Fort Worth Code Compliance, who manages the contract with Clean Slate.

Besides Nicole, my co-workers for the morning are Alan and Donny, ex-cons who are dealing with homelessness and serve on litter duty three days a week, four hours a day, to earn meals and a bunk at the shelter. Unlike Alan and Donny, who are part of the vocational program of Presbyterian Night Shelter, Nicole and other employees of the shelter’s Clean Slate program earn cash for their work. Nicole has been with the program for a year and a half and has moved into her own housing, but many employees stay at the shelter for a period of four to six months, until they’ve saved enough to find an apartment of their own.

Clean Slate is a for-profit business operating within the nonprofit Presbyterian Night Shelter. It falls under the umbrella of “social enterprise,” a growing segment of businesses that donate a portion of revenue into charitable efforts. In the case of Clean Slate, the company bids on contracts, offering litter, janitorial, or other staffing services—primarily hotel maids—and is able to reinvest some of its profits into its parent organization, the homeless shelter. In 2017, Clean Slate donated 7.5 percent of its revenue to Presbyterian Night Shelter; the remainder went to paying employees and covering operating expenses.

(Jennifer Smith/Unearthed Photography)

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.”