In parts of Baltimore, napkins, beer cans and Doritos bags litter the streets like fallen leaves. Overflowing garbage bags pile up in alleyways. Curbsides are decorated with broken furniture, discarded hubcaps and soda cups from fast food restaurants.

Trash, in its various shapes and sizes, remains one of Baltimore’s most stubborn challenges.

As the city attempts to get cleaning services back on track in the wake of pandemic rollbacks, Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration is trying a new, multimillion-dollar initiative to address the problem.

Known as Clean Corps, the program partners with nonprofits and community groups to hire residents to clean their own neighborhoods. City leaders hope the benefits will be threefold: removing trash, creating jobs for unemployed and underemployed Baltimoreans, and establishing a new pipeline of workers for the city’s Department of Public Works.

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“These are folks from Baltimore, that invest in Baltimore, that live in Baltimore, that grew up in Baltimore,” said Department of Public Works director Jason Mitchell, whose agency is assisting in Clean Corps’ efforts. “When you live and work in that community, you’re gonna invest your time and your energy to make sure that community gets the best service possible.”

Funded with $14.7 million in federal pandemic aid, the new cleaning initiative comes as Mitchell’s Department of Public Works has faced criticism from City Council members over its rocky performance over the last several years. The department has struggled to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels and is currently providing scaled-back, biweekly curbside recycling pickup.

Clean Corps could provide around 140 additional people, doing a mix of full- and part-time work for two-and-a-half years, according to the public works department. The program promises to pay residents $15 an hour for their labor, focusing on cleaning dirty alleys, clearing public trash cans and maintaining vacant lots, where trash often collects. It looks to add a different approach to take on an issue advocates say touches nearly every facet of a community. Baltimore mayors, including Scott, have routinely cited cleaner neighborhoods as a top priority.

“If it were really easy, we would have done it. On the other hand, it seems doable, doesn’t it?” said Shari Wilson, interim executive director of Trash Free Maryland.

Getting the Department of Public Works back to full staff has to be the top priority, Wilson said, adding that Clean Corps looks like a potentially fruitful approach. If Baltimore can pay due attention to its public works department, supplement efforts with programs like Clean Corps, and find ways to cut down on the volumes of residents’ packaging and waste, “you get some synergistic force that can really make a difference,” she said.

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Thirty-three neighborhoods, largely in East and West Baltimore, are eligible for support from Clean Corps, and up to 15 will get awards. Scott has not yet announced the program’s grant recipients.

An expansion for Public Works

Mitchell described Clean Corps as an “expansion” of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works. The pandemic exacerbated a staffing crunch in the department, and nearly 100 positions remain unfilled in its Solid Waste division, for a vacancy rate of 14%, according to figures provided by the agency. At the same time, the volumes of trash that Solid Waste collects have climbed since the start of the pandemic, rising from a monthly average of 10,500 tons in 2019 to more than 12,600 tons last year.

Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation, has overseen a small-scale pilot cleaning program that the city launched in his neighborhood last year. The program employed three workers to do eight hours of neighborhood cleanup a week, and Washington said he’s excited for what the expanded version could mean for neighborhoods around the city.

Though the initiative hasn’t been a cure-all, especially for Coldstream Homestead Montebello’s illegal dumping problems, Washington said the approach has made a noticeable difference in the cleanliness of his community. The model should give other Baltimore neighborhoods “a fighting chance,” he said.

Garbage in the corner of a doorway along E. Eager Street in Baltimore, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

While the mayor hosts annual cleanup events in the fall and spring, and the city has sponsored other participatory ways to tackle trash in the past, advocates said this may be the first time the community-driven approach has gotten so much financial backing. But the allocation of federal pandemic aid isn’t without its detractors.

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Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, one of the public works department’s most vocal critics, called Clean Corps a “shortsighted, Band-Aid” approach and a waste of nearly $15 million the city could have used to help get basic services back on track. He argues the program will only give DPW license to stop servicing the selected neighborhoods, leaving those communities and the rest of the city worse off when the federal funding eventually expires.

“If we can’t have the largest city agency performing these routine services — if $630 million isn’t enough to perform these routine services,” Schleifer asked, then “why would a $14.7 million Band-Aid be the answer?”

Scott administration officials have responded to such City Council criticisms by arguing the staffing shortages at the Department of Public Works are the result of a limited workforce — a shortcoming they say can’t be resolved simply by throwing more money at it.

Mitchell said he believes the city needs to take a “holistic approach” to its trash challenges, combining department services, resident education, community-driven cleaning and volunteer efforts over a sustained period of time.

He oversaw a similar program to Clean Corps in his former role in Oakland, California, an initiative he described as a major success. In addition to combatting a widespread illegal dumping problem, the program proved an effective staffing tool for the city’s public works department, with one former recruit even rising to a senior supervisor position, Mitchell said.

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Though Oakland has different challenges — for one, the city doesn’t face the widespread vacancies of Baltimore — illegal dumping is a significant problem for the city, and its large homeless population lacks adequate ways to dispose of trash.

“We saw communities looking cleaner, feeling cleaner,” Mitchell said, adding that Oakland’s program correlated with stronger community engagement. “Because they’re seeing us out there with them every day working side-by-side to keep communities healthy and clean.”

Garbage along E. Eager Street in Baltimore, Friday, October 21, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

Clayton Guyton of the Rose Street Community Center does similar work in East Baltimore, recruiting community members to remove trash in their area overnight. The approach has been successful at keeping the Madison-Eastend neighborhood clean, Guyton said, to the point where neighbors often call him rather than the city to address trash and illegal dumping problems.

Guyton said a big part of Rose Street’s success comes from the organization’s reliance on local residents.

“That’s number one,” he said. “We don’t want them to be temporary citizens. We want them to be empowered — a full citizen of Baltimore.”

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‘We’re all trying to dig our way out’

The brunt of illegal dumping, litter and other trash problems has tended to fall hardest on the majority Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore, where vacant homes are also the most common. The eligible neighborhoods for Clean Corps are largely in those wings of the city, and were determined in part based on their high levels of 311 service requests for cleaning, boarding of vacant buildings and overgrown weeds, as well as high vacancy rates and increases in vacancy over the last 10 years.

Ramya Ambikapathi and Christopher Kelley co-authored a 2016 Abell Foundation study on the drivers behind Baltimore litter, and the two pointed to a lack of grocery stores and adequate food options in low-income neighborhoods as a primary cause. Their analysis found litter was most common in the vicinity of corner stores, carryout restaurants, bus stops and schools, and Ambikapathi and Kelley said the large volumes of convenience-food packaging consumed in poorer neighborhoods mean those parts of town inevitably wind up with more trash.

At the same time, the problem was compounded by an insufficient frequency of trash pickups and too few bins to accommodate the volume of waste, said the researchers, who consulted the city’s Bureau of Solid Waste on solutions after the publication of their paper. Ambikapathi and Kelley added that since trash pickups ran at the same frequency in wealthy and poorer neighborhoods, the larger volume of packaging in low-income areas ends up on the ground, exacerbating challenges for those communities.

After the pandemic threw off Baltimore’s garbage and recycling services, “we’re all trying to dig our way out,” said Seema Iyer, director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore. While it’s difficult to say whether or not the pandemic has left Baltimore dirtier, scaled-back city services and altered behavior in the pandemic have led to different patterns of waste and litter, she said.

Ideally, Iyer said, Clean Corps will be able to focus on the neighborhoods with the worst trash problems, freeing the Department of Public Works to shore up services in the rest of the city.

Stefan Walker, main street manager for the community group in Belair-Edison, said the daily street cleaning services that DPW is supposed to provide through his neighborhood’s business corridor have fallen off since the start of the pandemic. In response, his group used $30,000 in state grant funds to hire a private contractor.

The company is providing a handful of street cleaners three days a week, with the help of one Belair-Edison resident — an important component, Walker said, since other residents might be less likely to litter if they see their neighbor cleaning up.

Work began on Saturday.

“It looks like a new street already,” Walker said.