Carrying a shovel along 7th Street in Sacramento’s River District, Shawna Barnes picks up old bottles and cans from homeless encampments. Sometimes she finds buckets filled with human waste.
Barnes is part of the Clean and Safe team, which consists of five homeless and formerly homeless residents who pick up trash at encampments in the River District, a neighborhood at the center of the region’s homelessness crisis. City leaders say the team could be replicated across the city and has the potential to transform the lives of its employees.
For Barnes, the work is not limited to cleaning up degraded areas. She says it’s also about bonding with camp residents.
“You don’t throw away anything they want to keep. You respect them,” Barnes explained during a recent cleanup, noting that she offers resources for people in the camps who want to get off the streets. “We are here to help. We are not here to do anything wrong.
Just a few years ago, Barnes was living in a tented camp in Del Paso Heights. She said she was drugged, cut off from her family, including her teenage son. Barnes “lost everything”.
The 42-year-old Sacramento native is now housed and earns a steady salary largely due to her job with the Clean and Safe team.
No decision has yet been made on funding for the program beyond the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The city budget will not be approved until mid-June.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Mayor Darrell Steinberg is a strong supporter of the program.
“The mayor says the River District program will continue,” Mary Lynne Vellinga, his chief of staff, said in a text last week. “We will make sure that is the case.”
Other city officials have also touted the program, calling it a cost-effective model for other business districts to follow.
Council member Jeff Harris, who currently represents the District of River, did not respond to requests for comment. In March, he praised the program and said the neighborhood “looks a lot better than it has in a long time.”
The River District is home to dozens of homeless encampments scattered along sidewalks, in bike paths, on vacant lots, and along the American River Parkway. The area is also home to many homeless service organizations, including several shelters.
“The latest estimate is that we have between 1,500 and 2,000 people living just within our mile and a quarter square of border in the River District completely homeless,” said Jenna Abbott, executive director of the River District Business Association.
Sacramento County’s most recent count of homeless residents in 2019 found more than 5,500 homeless people, a 19% increase over two years. This year’s county results will be released later this spring. Abbott said his numbers are based on recent federal surveys and the district’s own counts.
She added: “This is ground zero for homelessness in the area.”
How the program works
The program began in June 2021 as a public-private partnership between the River District Business Association and the City of Sacramento.
It operates Monday through Friday in the neighborhood north of downtown, which has one of the highest concentrations of homeless residents in the region. So far, the team has removed around 180 tonnes of waste, according to the trade association.
Abbott said his association hires workers at local homeless shelters, pays them $15 to $21 an hour, and provides them with paid time off. Workers become official district employees, drive their trucks, wear their uniforms, and are provided with gloves, trash bags, and other equipment needed to clean up near campsites.
Community advocates say there is a misconception that homeless people are unwilling to work.
“There are a lot of people out there who have hopes and dreams for their careers who are willing to work even if it’s voluntary work,” said Angela Hassell, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, a center for River District Homeless Services.
Alongside trash pick-up, Clean and Safe Team employees meet weekly with Team Leader Chris Evans to learn job skills, including time and resource management.
“They need to acquire these skills in order to be able to reintegrate into society. And they’re doing it slowly but surely,” Evans said.
While the trade association runs the program and pays for operating costs like fuel and supplies, the city pays worker salaries. The Department of Community Response has budgeted $250,000 for the program in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Funding for the team comes from the city’s Department of Community Response. DCR spokesman Gregg Fishman said the department hopes to continue the program.
Abbott said the trade association should end it if the city stops paying salaries.
She said the association spent about $151,000 to cover operating expenses while a private company, 29th Street Capital, donated $50,000 to pay for Clean and Safe team vehicles.
“I think we could afford to float it for a month or two, but that would be it,” she wrote in an email.
“It gives me confidence”
Although the program is seen as an early success, city officials and advocates say much greater investment in affordable housing and social services is needed to address the humanitarian crisis in places like the River District.
Two Clean and Safe Team employees have secured housing while in the program, but others are still looking.
Walter Mullins, 61, has been homeless for over a year. He said the regular salary from the job helped him buy a van. He hopes to find an apartment soon.
“It gives me the confidence and the opportunity to get back to a normal life – a better life,” Mullins said of his work.
“It’s not overnight,” he added. “But a job helps to do that.”
For Barnes, the opportunity changed his life.
“They’ve blessed me with this work and it’s amazing,” Barnes said after filling a dozen trash bags at a camp in late April with his team members.
“I am no longer homeless,” she added. “I found my family. I stopped taking drugs for two years. My life is just amazing.
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