Plenty of trash but little cash in San Jose program to pay homeless to pick up garbage

File photo show trash can overflowing onto city street.

Weeks after San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced a program to pay homeless people cash to pick up garbage around the city, people in the program say trash was left piling up and they weren't paid for weeks -- until San Jose Spotlight asked about it.

On Dec. 19, a day after an inquiry from this news organization, Liccardo went to a homeless encampment at Roosevelt Park and handed out prepaid debit cards to homeless residents who had been waiting to get paid for about five weeks.

"They came by one time a few weeks ago to get our trash, but that was it. A lot of us eventually threw out the bags we'd been saving because we don't like to have trash just sitting around," Benny Molina, a homeless man living in Roosevelt Park, told San Jose Spotlight on Dec. 3. "That's why I think this was just more of a political stunt to get the news out here and say we need help from him (Liccardo)."

Liccardo told San Jose Spotlight he'd rather give "actual information" about the program instead of responding to accusations.

"Our unhoused residents have enough burdens and barriers to grapple with. I'm not going to engage in a 'he said, she said,'" Liccardo said.

Molina said he earned $20 for his trash in the days leading up to Liccardo's Nov. 12 news conference at Roosevelt Park, the launch site for the program. But after filling additional trash bags in anticipation for the next trash collection cycle, more than a month went by and trash collectors with the program did not return. Molina didn't get paid again until Dec. 19.

The six-month pilot program dubbed Cash for Trash was rolled out under BeautifySJ, an initiative launched in 2017.

The idea is to pay homeless residents $4 for every bag of trash collected. The payouts were capped at $20 per day with trash being collected by the city every 10 to 14 days.

Paul Pereira, a senior policy advisor to Liccardo who worked on the program, said the Dec. 19 trash collection was not prompted by media inquiries but rather because of homeless residents' complaints about rotting food in the trash bags.

"We weren't coming by because we were taking extra precautions in light of COVID-19 outbreaks," he said. "But people were complaining about the rotting food. I get it. That's going to attract things like mice and we didn't want that."

BeautifySJ initially planned to establish 40 trash pickup sites for Cash for Trash citywide, Pereira said, but the city only identified 15 sites because of the rise in COVID-19 infections.

"We're not supposed to be within six feet of people and it takes about 5 to 10 minutes to register a person and they're using a pen and a clipboard," Pereira said. "That's against the county guidelines for being that close to people so we can't really register new people until the shelter in place is over."

More than 60 homeless people enrolled in the program. Some of the trash pickup sites included Tully Ballpark and the roads surrounding Boccardo Regional Reception Center on Little Orchard Street which serves as a shelter and provides services to people in need.

Edwin Vasquez, who also lives at the Roosevelt Park encampment along Coyote Creek, said no trash has been collected since the program's launch.

"The bags you see are from people who were waiting for the next time (trash collectors) come around," Vasquez said in Spanish. "Well, they didn't return."

BeautifySJ program manager Olympia Williams said the city is still collecting data on how to structure the program so it is most effective for people who participate.

"(We're) finding out what works best for the program and the program participants, along with what types of locations and sites will work best," she said. "We're just getting off of the ground, we're just getting people registered."

Liccardo said the program had been suspended only at Roosevelt Park to protect outreach workers after a COVID-19 outbreak at the encampment.

"My understanding is there will be a fix in place within a couple of days, but we've had to re-assess the protocols to keep everybody safe," the mayor said.

For the first time since the program was launched, trash collectors returned to Roosevelt Park Dec. 19 with Liccardo and collected trash from residents who had garbage bags cluttered at the entrances of their tents.

But Molina says he still wasn't paid for all his trash.

"We gave them 16 bags but they only gave me and my girl $20 each. And some people didn't even get paid because they weren't here," Molina said. "The only reason they came back to pay us out is because you pushed them."

San Jose Spotlight in the past month spoke to five homeless residents inside three San Jose homeless camps who all said they gathered trash, but the city failed to pick it up or properly pay them.

"Two guys came down here a few weeks ago ... they dropped off some bags and told us we'd get paid $4 (for) each one we filled when they come back for them," said Ruben Florez, a homeless man who lives along Coyote Creek. "As far as I know, they haven't come back.."

Florez said he and his neighbors filled at least 20 trash bags and piled them along the fence at the end of Singleton Road. The bags disappeared -- but there was no money in sight.

"I don't think the trash crew had any clue about (Cash for Trash)," he said. "But it's good that we're getting our trash picked up, period. We're happy with that, but still they should come back to drop off more bags. We've been needing more."

Ana Sele, who lives in an RV across from Coyote Creek, said she was paid for her trash in the days leading up to Liccardo's announcement of the program.

"Some city outreach workers came by and had someone speak to me in Spanish to tell me about the trash program," Sele said in Spanish. "They came by with a dump truck and right there they gave me money for the few bags I had."