California town pays homeless with COVID cash to reward camp clean-ups

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The homeless in a central California town are cleaning up their act, and landing federal COVID-19 relief funds for doing it.

Under Elk Grove’s cash-for-trash program, people sleeping rough in empty lots or under bridges get a $20 gift card every time they use city-provided orange plastic bags to clean up their own mess.

“They’re excited when we come every other Wednesday for junk and rubbish cleanups,” Jennifer McCue of the Elk Grove Police Department told CBS13 Sacramento.

“We’d go there, it would just be a massive mess, we’d spend hours just cleaning and cleaning,” McCue said. “But now we go there and their bags are ready.”

The cards can be used at local grocery stores to buy food and hygiene items — but not for alcohol or cigarettes, city manager Sarah Bontrager told CNN.

“Our public works staff were previously doing cleanups out at encampment sites … and just spending a lot of time and money doing it,” Bontrager said.

With each city cleanup costing an estimated $1,000 in staff time and equipment, the program may end up saving money, she said.

“The cost of running this program for over a year has been under $10,000, when we might have run through that in one month previously just doing the regular cleanups,” Bontrager said.

Amy Ross, who lives in a tent encampment near an elevated stretch of freeway, said she was “shocked” by the city’s outreach effort — but is happy to pitch in.

“Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I don’t care,” she said.

Funding for the first-in-the-nation program came from federal cash that Elk Grove received through the CARES Act — the coronavirus relief measure passed by Congress in March 2020 — and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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