Local News

Saturday, Jun 15 2013 05:00 PM

Trash pickup program a pathway out of homelessness

  1. 1 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Kelcey Brown, left, and David Orn work side by side with the Bakersfield Homeless Center clean up crew Friday near Highway 99 and many other areas where trash on the roadside is prevalent.

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  2. 2 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Duane Miller picks up trash in Bakersfield with an entire crew from the Bakersfield Homeless Center in this June file photo. This trash pick-up effort is a collaboration between Caltrans, the City of Bakersfield, the Homeless Center and the Kern Council of Governments.

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  3. 3 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    David Orn works with the Bakersfield Homeless Center clean up crew Friday morning in Bakersfield, off Highway 99. Orn was homeless, but he and his family have recently got a place to stay, so they no longer live at the Bakersfield Homeless Center.

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  4. 4 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The Bakersfield Homeless Center clean up crew finds a safe spot to park each time they stop for a trash pick-up. Fast moving traffic can be a serious problem.

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  5. 5 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    David Orn works the clean up crew along with several others from the Bakersfield Homeless Center Friday morning in collaboration with Caltrans, the City of Bakersfield, the Homeless Center and the Kern County Council of Governments. The workers say it's amazing what they find along the side of the roadways.

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  6. 6 of 6

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Duane Miller gets a last minute hug from his daughter, Brianna, 12, before he heads off to Highway 99 to clean the roads of trash along with a crew from the Bakersfield Homeless Center Friday morning.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

If you can think of it, someone has thrown it out of an open window at 70 miles per hour, and one of these seven men probably has picked it up.

Part of a unique collaboration that has Caltrans paying the city of Bakersfield to hire residents of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, seven men in fluorescent yellow, collarless shirts and white hard hats are out there on the sides of our roads five days a week, cleaning up our messes as they forge new futures for themselves.

"The point of the story, which is very exciting, is now you've got a pathway for people who might have been clients of the center, now you've got a pathway for them to move out of the center," said Sal Moretti, superintendent of the solid waste division of Bakersfield Public Works.

In fact, many of the men on this crew -- Kelcey Brown, James Dorton, Duane Miller, Phillip Montez, Anthony Ocampo, David Orr and Saly Phetxaya -- are, or have been, clients of the center, which is a nice way of saying that they are, or have been, homeless.

That's with, in many cases, their families, who hug them goodbye each morning before they climb into a gold metallic SUV hitched to a portable toilet, and haul it out to the shoulder of one of Bakersfield's many freeways and highways.

They pick up the trash we see from our speeding vehicles -- water bottles, cardboard boxes, tire treads -- and the more disgusting items that hide among the pine cones and dying weeds.

"Gay porn -- don't write that! You get dead dogs, trucker bombs. That's what we call the bottles with urine that truck drivers throw out. Baby diapers, lots of those -- even (adult) diapers. We found a $100 bill once," said Montez, 26, who moved to Bakersfield from Fresno with his then-girlfriend Donetta after his now mother-in-law's neighbor offered to find him a job on an oil rig.

The job never came, and the couple and their two children ended up at the center.

They're living on their own now, have two more children, and got married on March 5, 2012, but the experience of losing almost everything left an indelible impression on Montez.

"I was kind of nervous really, kind of sad, like, 'Why'd I do this?'" he said of moving himself and his family all the way to Bakersfield for a position that didn't exist.

"I used to go out and apply for jobs, apply for jobs, couldn't find nothing. It makes me feel a lot better, taking care of myself now," Montez said, describing the Catch-22 that can make it harder to find work when you're unemployed.

Others agree.

"I think it's a win-win situation. It's helping me save money for my family and keep the freeways clean. We're able to save money from this program and I'm working. It makes me so grateful," said Brown, 44, who originally is from Lancaster. "It's great for the community. It just makes you feel good at the end of the day that you've done something."

Even if you're only earning $8 per hour, which is what these men are paid under terms of a two-year agreement that has Caltrans paying the city $250,000 in 2013 and again in 2014 to hire homeless center workers.

Even if more trash falls off of semi-trucks, or is hurled in your direction by drivers, as you fill an orange trash bag with your jointed, aluminum trash grippers. Even if you know in your heart that a serious or fatal traffic accident could be just inches away.

"I'm happy for him. It's dangerous, but they're happy to do it. I always tell him every day, 'Be careful'," said Brown's wife, Maria, as the couple hugged their daughter Shalyn, 8.

"As long as she's happy, I'm happy," said Kelcey Brown.

"The first day, we went out there and it knocked me in the dirt. Everything comes out of those cars," said Bakersfield Homeless Center Executive Director Louis Gill, addressing a common myth about the homeless. "They're not lazy or shiftless. That's a lie. If they are unemployed, they absolutely want to do something about changing their existence. This is giving people an opportunity to get a start."

The inter-agency effort sprang from the end, in July 2011, of a contract with the Shafter Community Correctional Facility, which had supplied Caltrans with low-risk prison inmates who originally picked up trash on area freeways.

On the job since May 1, homeless center employees have bagged more than 39,000 pounds of trash. The average of 70 trash bags they fill every day has made them so popular that a second crew of six, including several women, currently is being hired -- once they pass urine tests, background checks, and the Live Scan fingerprinting that is required of public school teachers.

"Caltrans was just getting beat up over the state of the freeways. I think they realized that maybe they should let us help them find some solutions. That's kind of how it all came together, the city having most to gain or lose by the state of the freeways, and the city having good experience with certain crews," Moretti said, pointing out that the city has employed homeless center workers for the past five years to sort green waste -- organic matter -- at its facility on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Finding prospective candidates to fill another road crew has not been a problem; the city's close relationship with the homeless center is well-known. And the possibility, however remote, of a full-time permanent city job has an allure all its own.

"Now, whenever you talk to them about their dreams, it's, 'I want to get a job with the city,'" Moretti said. "There's only so many jobs with the city. Our goal isn't to give them city jobs."

Ten months ago, however, Melissa Lopez, a former homeless center resident and temporary parks department employee, was hired to sort green waste, as a permanent employee of the Solid Waste division.

"I just stayed focused and I felt like I have to do this for my kid," said Lopez, 47, who made some "bad decisions" after losing her job in construction, spending eight months at the center and temporarily losing custody of her younger daughter, Anna, now 17 and living with her mom again. "I'm just grateful to the city that they gave me the chance. I feel like if I did it anybody can." And anyone can get a better-paying job, someday.

"We want to be able to stand up for their next employer and say, 'You're getting an excellent employee,'" Gill said. "As an employer, it's like you don't want to lose an employee, but that's part of the process, is independence, not life-long dependence."

That's exactly what motivates Miller.

"Last year, my kids had gotten taken away from us, and that was really what motivated my fiancee and me to come up here," said Miller, 39, of Tehachapi. A member of the center's inaugural crew, he and his fiancee, Heather Stowell, 30, now have custody of Brianna, 12; Brandon, 9; Elizabeth, 4; Nicholas, 3; and Zoe, 1, once again.

"It makes me feel like I'm actually part of civilization again," Miller said of his job. "I actually have a paycheck now, putting money away. We're hoping to get out of here by next month. Just being able to get somewhat back to a normal life."

"If he's happy, I'm happy," said Stowell.

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