Months away from the start of the new fiscal year, three local government agencies are carving out room in their 2021-2022 budget proposals for programs aimed at solving one of the Portland area’s most pressing -- and most visual -- problems: trash.
This week, representatives for the city of Portland, the Joint Office of Homeless Services and the regional government agency Metro all confirmed they’re hoping to launch, or in one case have already launched, programs that pay people to pick up trash along local streets and highways.
In all three cases, staff will zero in on hiring specific demographics: people experiencing homelessness or people recently out of the correctional system. They’re also, in all three cases, aiming to pay workers "living wages" with rates as high as $20 an hour.
The plans come in the midst of a record-setting year for garbage pickup. Municipal budgets gutted by the pandemic and a months-long halt in clearing homeless camps produced jarring amounts of trash in and around Portland.
The city's online dashboard, updated last week, shows crews have now collected 2,510 tons of garbage, or more than 5 million pounds. It’s a pace that’s on track to surpass last year’s record of 3,275 tons. A spokesman for Metro confirms the agency is also seeing a record number of requests, with a live dashboard showing 7,268 reports received in the last year.
Last month, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced his office was forming a comprehensive cleanup plan called the "Clean and Green Cleanup Initiative," led by former Mayor Sam Adams. As part of that, he promised several local agencies, including Metro, would ramp up trash pickup efforts across the city. At the time, details were still in the works.
Now, as vaccinations speed up and the pandemic winds to a close, new plans are coming into focus, with multiple agencies looking to make up lost ground in Portland’s battle with trash. And they’re looking to get funds for these programs solidified in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1st.
Chapter 1: City of Portland's plan
In mid-February, the city of Portland quietly launched a pilot program partnering with local non-profit Trash For Peace. The program, coordinated through a program within the 501c3 called the "Ground Score Association," pays people experiencing homelessness $20 an hour to pick up trash in Portland.
People are not paid, specifically, to pick up trash at their own camps. Instead they go out in coordinated cleanup shifts to pick up trash in neighborhoods across Portland, said Heather Hafer, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Management and Finance. Right now, crews are focusing in on Old Town/Chinatown and near the Lloyd Center.
"The program’s goal is to reduce the impact of trash, debris, waste, and biohazardous material in the community while providing income opportunities and job experience for unhoused or insecurely housed Portlanders," Hafer said in an email. "We are paying $20 an hour because it’s a living wage, but also because this is skilled work for an essential service, and we are compensating fairly for that work."
By the end of March, 28 people were employed by the pilot program to pick up trash. Executive Director of Trash For Peace Laura Kutner Tokarski told KGW via email crews had collected 576 bags of trash, weighing 16,084 pounds.
"I am contributing to society again. I can’t work eight hours, but I can do a few hours. My background does not matter—where it does in a traditional job," said Doreen, quoted in a fact sheet about the program provided to KGW.
In two months, the city of Portland has spent $9,415 on the program. That money comes from the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program. Hafer confirmed staff have requested the city council approve funds to keep the program running through the next fiscal year.
Chapter 2: The county's plan
The Joint Office of Homeless Services, a partnership between the city of Portland and Multnomah County, is aiming to launch a trash pickup program similar to the city of Portland’s, with people experiencing homelessness paid to clean up garbage. Theirs comes with a larger proposed price tag: $3 million. They’ve asked the county board, who will start reviewing budget proposals next week, to pull the money from a homeless services bond measure approved by Metro voters in May of 2020. The measure, a tax on high-income households and businesses, is expected to raise $2.5 billion in revenue over ten years.
"The 'Here Together' [slogan]. That might be the other phrase folks remember,” said Joint Office Spokesman Denis Theriault. "That's just services and rent assistance and other things like that treatment and connecting people to housing."
If approved, the county-run program, like the one launched by the city, would employ people on the brink of -- or already -- experiencing homelessness. Staff estimated with the funding they’re seeking, they could employ close to 100 people, roughly four times the size of Portland’s pilot project. Like the city’s pilot, he added, the Joint Office would seek to pay participants close to $20 an hour. The number of hours worked, Theriault said, would likely be fluid.
He emphasized, the program, which has yet to be named, would also provide work experience and references for those looking to get back on their feet.
"We think about supportive housing with services that we're going to start funding a lot more of as this funding from Metro comes in," he said. "It's not just behavioral health resources. It's not just help with someone who has a disabling condition. It's also income acquisition. It's also workforce training, getting job skills, exactly. Getting a reference, getting someplace where you can go and learn a skill, learn a trade and move up the job ladder a little bit and stabilize yourself."
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury is expected to release her budget proposal on April 22. If the program’s funding is included, and approved by her fellow board members, Theriault estimates crews could be out picking up trash in the county as soon as July.
Chapter 3: Metro's plan
Staff with the regional agency Metro know their program, RID Patrol, has been under a microscope recently. A few months ago, news broke that RID, which stands for Regional Illegal Dumping, had long stopped using inmates from the Multnomah County Jail to clean up trash in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. The decision eliminate that unpaid labor cut their total number of crews in half.
Initially, staff said they’d moved away from the practice in an effort to prioritize racial equity and fair pay. Wednesday, Metro's Public Affairs Specialist Nick Christensen added that’s the rationale now, but it wasn’t the impetus for the decision. Metro first stopped using inmate labor in January 2020, he said, noting that date was too early to be tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was a flu outbreak [at first], and then COVID hit, and they shut it down," Christensen said. "We didn't have control."
Since then, requests for cleanups have soared, and actual cleanups have fallen far behind pace of years past. Metro just doesn’t have the manpower.
Headed into this spring’s budget process, staff there are also asking for funds to get back on track. They’ve set their price tag at $2,477,000, paid for by revenue from solid waste fees. Unlike their city and county counterparts, they’re not looking to prioritize hiring people experiencing homelessness. They’ll instead focusing on employing people recently out of the correctional system or impacted by it.
"85% of people who go in prison get out. So that's a large percentage of individuals who are coming out into our communities, reintegrating our communities," said Brody Abbott, a senior solid waste planner with Metro. "And I think one of the best things for individuals who have to navigate obstacles of having a criminal record and have to capitulate to so many different things as they navigate their path to reentry is workforce development stability."
Assuming its multimillion dollar budget gets approved, Abbott said, Metro is hoping to double their current resources, bringing them back to pre-2020 levels. They’re planning to add six crews, each with two workers and one "crew lead." They’ll also aim to pay $20 an hour, with participants referred by local community groups who work with people recently incarcerated.
The crews will focus in on traditional hotspots, Abbott said, like Sullivan’s Gulch along I-84, while expanding to new areas that have been inundated with trash over the last year. On its live dashboard, Metro notes more than half its cleanups focus in on “residential” dumps, as opposed to trash left outside by people experiencing homelessness.
Abbott and Christensen said if the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office were to make inmate labor available again, it’s unclear if Metro would go back to using that option. For now, staff are focusing on building a new model.
"We [as a society] oftentimes exploit individuals who don't have a lot of agency and opportunity because they'd been targeted and essentially stigmatized by having a criminal history or being incarcerated," Abbott said. "And so we really want to provide workforce opportunities for folks coming out of prison because that really does reduce recidivism."
Metro’s council is due to start reviewing their budget proposals this week. If this expansion of the RID Patrol gets the green light, crews could be out cleaning up trash by August.