The gutter on the 1200 block of Lakeshore Avenue collects large amounts of trash and requires cleaning several times per week. Credit: Nina Riggio

As members of the Downtown Streets Team approached the 1200 block of Lakeshore Avenue on a recent Tuesday morning a few of them yelled “hot spot!”

The Streets Team, a cohort of people experiencing homelessness who take to the pathways of Lake Merritt three times a week to clean up trash, know the area on the southern tip of the lake as a place that’s usually strewn with garbage. They picked up empty take-out boxes, bottles, and ripped cigars using trash grabbers.

“We’ll spend the rest of our shift here,” said Louis Miranda-Rivera, a team member who keeps his tiny dog Luna in his backpack while he works.

Before the pandemic, the Lake Merritt Institute and its volunteers cleaned up much of the trash dropped in and around the lake. The institute collected data showing the scale of the problem: in 2019, volunteers disposed of 22,000 gallons of trash, but the institute’s volunteers stopped gathering rubbish when the pandemic began. At the same time, the pandemic led to an increase in the use of disposable masks, gloves, and other items that end up tossed in streets and waterways. And restaurants are doing business almost entirely by take out, leading to the proliferation of boxes, plastic shells, and disposable silverware that also ends up as litter.

The Downtown Streets Team hard at work collecting trash on January 14, 2021. Credit: Nina Riggio

The Downtown Streets Team was established in 2005 in Palo Alto to employ houseless people in beautification projects and now operates in 16 cities across Northern California. Cities contract with the organization for the litter cleaning services and team members are paid with gift cards good for fast food restaurants and retailers like Target and Safeway. Caseworkers help participants find temporary housing and employment.

Last October, the group restarted their work in Oakland after taking a year-long break. Currently the program is funded through a partnership with the city’s Human Services Department. Downtown Streets Team also recently teamed up with Bay Area Community Services to create a program called Team Work Oakland that will help houseless people obtain full time, living wage jobs.

Louis Miranda-Rivera’s dog Luna peaks its head out of his backpack as the Downtown Streets Team cleans the western shore of Lake Merritt. Credit: Nina Riggio

Julia Lang, the East Bay director for Downtown Streets Team, estimated that the group has helped house more than 1,000 people across the Bay Area since she began working there 5 years ago. She sees the streets team as a stepping stone to permanent, better paying, work.

“Through this pilot program we’re helping folks get placed with jobs in the homeless service sector,” she said about the Team Work Oakland project. “We need their wisdom and guidance to inform that sector, and they have the lived experience and can earn a living wage in those positions. Homelessness is an experience and not an identity.”

Gigi Daly, right, and a Downtown Streets Team case manager Lucy Morales roll a trash can behind team members who gather litter. Credit: Nina Riggio

Gigi Daly has been with the streets team for two years. She had plans to attend cosmetology school at Laney College last year but the pandemic interfered. As she picked up bottles on Grand Avenue, Daly explained that she is currently working toward her GED through the online school Penn Foster. The streets team is helping her pay the $45 per month tuition.

“I really believe if we make communities look better things will get better,” Daly said.

The Downtown Streets Team’s model of paying participants with gift cards has been criticized by some who feel it doesn’t fairly compensate people for their labor. According to the city, groundskeepers or park attendants make an average of $15 per hour plus healthcare, a pension, and dental. Streets team participants estimate that they take home about five gift card dollars per hour worked, far below minimum wage

“It’s something to fall back on,” explained a team member named Pete, who has participated in the program on and off for about seven years.

An egret takes flight after the Downtown Streets Team passes by with their yellow buckets to clean up trash around Lake Merritt on January 14, 2021.

Nino Parker, an unsheltered Oakland resident who organized his own clean ups around Lake Merritt several years ago, spoke out in opposition to the program in 2018 when the City Council first considered it. “You’re using homeless people,” Parker said during a council meeting. “How do you stack gift cards and pay rent? That’s my beef. A gift card and some cash would work, but just a straight gift card keeps you in homelessness.”

“They need to be paying the streets team their fair market value,” said Elias Girma, an Oakland local, after watching the group clean the street near his home. “It’s exploitative and we are failing to provide a liveable income to the working population.”

Members of Oakland’s Downtown Streets Team start out their day of cleaning Lake Merritt on January 19, 2021. Credit: Nina Riggio

Some participants say the program gives them structure and other benefits besides gift cards. Gigi said her caseworker helped her update her resume. Pete said the group helped him find temporary housing. 

After walking the full four miles around the lake, bending to pick up many gallons of trash, the streets team was covered in sweat, red in the face, but willing to press on.

“Everyone gives us thanks, everytime we’re out, I feel good about it,” said Pete. “Even when I’m off shift, I’m still picking up trash.”