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Last year, a homeless resident staying on the outskirts of downtown had a question for a volunteer delivering food: Why doesn’t the city set up dumpsters so people living on the street can throw away trash in their neighborhood?
What resulted was a four-month pilot known as the Triangle Project. In 34 days over four months, homeless residents picked up nearly 45 tons of trash in a triangle-shaped area bounded by National Avenue and 16th and Commercial streets. It’s an area on the border of East Village and Barrio Logan.
Since March, volunteer Brian Trotier and others have posted at 16th and Commercial streets on Monday and Thursday mornings with a dumpster, heavy-duty trash bags and a stack of $1 bills. They offered $2 for each bag collected – and homeless residents took them up on it, filling a reported 7,135 bags of trash over the 34-day pilot that ended last Thursday.
On Thursday alone, Trotier said homeless residents in the area handed off 330 bags of trash, a record set on the project’s final day.
The pilot was backed by about $20,000 from the Lucky Duck Foundation and donated dumpster time from waste disposal company EDCO. City Councilman Stephen Whitburn’s office also covered landfill dumping fees.
The Lucky Duck Foundation is now seeking a group to continue the program that has drawn interest from out of state and that Trotier said has already inspired a couple pilot efforts in Utah and Oceanside.
For now, the Triangle Project is on hiatus. Participants who have come to count on the program were sad to see it end last week.
As he loaded another shopping cart filled with trash bags into the dumpster on Thursday morning, 30-year-old Maurice Loadholt said he’d filled at least 40 bags.
Loadholt, who is staying at a downtown shelter, said the pilot project gave unhoused residents staying in the area a reason to get going on Monday and Thursday mornings. He said he’s saving the money he collects from trash pickups and a new landscaping job Trotier connected him with so he can eventually afford his own place.
Now that his regular trash gig has ended. Loadholt is convinced neighbors will notice a difference. After all, Loadholt and others said, homeless residents have put a significant dent in the piles of trash common throughout the downtown area.
“There’s gonna be a lot of trash out here,” Loadholt said.
Victoria Bell, 34, said she’s also noticed a change in the neighborhood.
“It was a really good idea for them to start it,” Bell said late last month after collecting about $25 for a dozen bags of trash. “It has helped.”
Reliable Pipe Supply branch manager Andre Bergeron, whose company operates in the Triangle Project area, agreed. He admits he was skeptical about the effort and how it might go when it began. Now he’s a fan.
“They made a difference, and you can tell,” Bergeron said. “The amount of trash that they’ve picked up and what they do on a regular basis is amazing.”
Bergeron was so impressed he invited Triangle Project participants to clear a trash-filled section of the company’s property in May. He said homeless residents walked out that day with 23 large bags of trash.
“It was just amazing,” Bergeron said.
Angela Wright, 30, said the project has also motivated homeless residents in the area and supplied much-needed extra cash.
Wright and her friends said they recently used the money they’ve collected picking up trash to buy ice, soda and ice cream to keep cool as the temperatures rise.
Wright’s friend Bella Roberts, 35, said she recently used the extra cash she gets filling bags of trash twice a week to buy cat litter. She had been short on funds.
Kathy Shely, 55, recalled learning about the pilot program on a March morning when she woke up hungry and crying. Someone told her she could make $2 a bag if she picked up trash.
Shely said she used her first $2 to buy a cup of hot coffee. She’s returned twice a week ever since.
Richard Horton, 65, asked the question that sparked the Triangle Project. In the project’s final days, Horton said he would never forget what Trotier did with his idea, how he listened.
More recently, Horton has been demoralized by increasing police enforcement and city clean-up operations in the area he and others have worked hard in recent months to clean.
“Homeless do a lot, some of us,” Horton said.
Perhaps, Horton and Trotier once thought, the project could help reduce the need for city crews and police officers to order residents in the area to move their camps and belongings so the city could clean up for them.
Lucky Duck executive director Drew Moser and Trotier now hope they can find an organization to continue it and scale up the program that far exceeded their expectations. The project started as a pilot led by Trotier, a retired attorney, to test whether it would work and now they are hoping to find a group to lead it over the long haul.
Trotier had once predicted homeless residents would collect 100 bags a day – far less than the 330 they collected Thursday.
He acknowledged he started the project unsure how many homeless residents would want to pick up trash.
He came away impressed by participants’ resilience and problem-solving skills and convinced that projects like it can help build connections to pave the way for homeless residents to move off the street – and to feel like part of the communities they live in.
“They developed a sense of pride in their neighborhood,” Trotier said. “All I ever wanted to do was remove the trash.”
A wood carving with a thoughtful message that Trotier received from Caspar Caspian, 42, only underscored what the project has meant to participants.
“One man’s trash is another’s treasure,” Caspian wrote on the gift. “Tho with the right heart & mind, one man’s trash can be another’s salvation. (sic) Thank you for the hope.”