City Hall

Should Dallas Pay the Homeless to Pick Up Trash?

Jacob Vaughn
An annual census of the homeless population counted 4,570 homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties this year, a record.
In March, a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report found that more than half a million people in the country were homeless on a single night in 2020. That’s about 12,700 more people than the year before. To tackle increasing homelessness and joblessness, some cities are paying the homeless to pick up trash and cut weeds.

There’s a city-funded program in California run by the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team that gives stipends to the homeless to pick up trash in Oakland. The nonprofit gives people gloves, bags, pickers, dustpans and carts to pick up trash on the sidewalks and in parks for about $120 a week.

Dallas has toyed with the idea before but doesn’t have such a program.

Chad West, City Council member for Dallas’ District 1, said homelessness in the city can be attributed to several factors. “It’s lack of affordable housing. A lot of it is substance abuse and mental illness, not everyone, but some,” he said. “Certainly joblessness is also a factor, and really, all three of those areas are tied together.”

West, the former chair of the city’s housing and homelessness committee, said he liked the concept of hiring the homeless for small jobs around the city like picking up trash.

“I would certainly think from a funding initiative it’s something I could get behind if the city funded it,” West said. “But in terms of the city managing it, I think it would be better managed by one of our providers that place homeless folks into housing and are really working with them on a day-to-day basis.”

"This program alone will not do very much to combat homelessness if the city [does not] provide an adequate amount of low/no income housing." - Ryan Ahmadian, Dallas Houseless Committee

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In February, the Dallas City Council discussed different ways to tackle panhandling, drawing ideas from other cities across the country. They considered programs in Albuquerque and Philadelphia that hired homeless people for a day's work.

Albuquerque’s program pays the homeless about $9 an hour to pick up trash and cut weeds. The program also linked the individuals with social services. A city employee hits the road every morning to pick up homeless people and offer them work.

The workers aren’t required to show any ID or fill out any employment forms. The program provided 932 day-long shifts to 302 homeless individuals in about a year.

At the February council briefing, City Attorney Chris Caso said city staff were looking at programs like these, including one that hired homeless people to help paint murals.

“That’s obviously something that we can explore as part of a pilot program with looking at if this is a viable solution – not a viable solution in and of it self, but as part of one of the tools and one of the alternatives we would be exploring,” Caso told the City Council.

Wayne Walker, minister and founder of the local nonprofit OurCalling, said a program like this was presented to the City Council a few years ago, but it failed to win approved.

Walker was speaking to other cities with similar programs then and said found that they weren’t always effective. “The program is great for optics. It looks really good in the media," Walker said. "But it didn’t really have an efficacy for stopping panhandling or helping the homeless get jobs.”

Daniel Roby, CEO of the local shelter Austin Street Center, said he's been trying to get Dallas to implement a program like this for a long time to no avail.

But, Fort Worth has offered something similar to the homeless for the last few years.

In 2018, Fort Worth allocated $450,000 to hire 15 homeless people to pick up trash in the city through a program called Clean Slate. It pays about minimum wage with paid vacation and health benefits. The money expanded the program, which the city was already testing out near downtown Fort Worth.

Today, the program employs 17 people, paying them $10-$12 an hour and providing benefits including health care, 401(k) matches and housing support.

Ryan Ahmadian, cofounder of the Dallas Houseless Committee and a member of Dallas Stops Evictions, said he thinks programs like these could work in the city if the homeless are at least enough to afford adequate low income housing.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, because from our experience we see homeless people already doing this and cleaning up in their own communities, so if they are making money from this work it’s definitely a positive thing,” Ahamadian said. “That being said, this program alone will not do very much to combat homelessness if the city is not properly using its resources to provide an adequate amount of low/no income housing that is accessible. Otherwise people are receiving $100-300 a week with no options for housing they can afford for that low of an income.”

In 2018, Dallas put out its first comprehensive housing policy, which found a shortage of 20,000 affordable homes in the city.