Emily Bergey stands outside a modest and tidy tent covered with a bright blue protective tarp. She wears the uniform of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
“Hello, it’s Deputy Bergey,” she calls out. “Do you need anything? Water, bus passes, trash bags?”
A woman pushes aside the thin flap of cloth that is her front door. Her name is Alice.
“Oh, ya, I can always use the bags,” she says. “I pick up along the trail. It’s an everyday chore.”
Alice steps onto a bit of carpet that helps keep dirt out of her living space. She wears a pink ruffled skirt and a bright smile.
She and Bergey are talking about the big white trash bags that are part of a program Metro rolled out last November to help people living outside dispose of their garbage. Various community health and outreach workers distribute the bags. When they are full, anyone can call the number printed on them to get them picked up.
Bergey is a member of the Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement (HOPE) Team, which aims to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness while providing emergency supplies. The team also responds to business and neighborhood complaints. Ultimately, though, they want to connect people with needed services and help get folks to a safer place.
According to Bergey, that takes a lot of trust and tenacity.
“It’s a huge web of resources to navigate,” she says, adding that they often make multiple phone calls to numerous service agencies. And there often are long waiting lists for the services they provide – from housing placement to addiction treatment. It can take hours, days, or months before people get the assistance they need, she says.
So Bergey walks the maze of wooded paths at Thousand Acres Park—where the Sandy River meets the Columbia—to try and help. In the process, she and her teammates get to know the people living outside there.
People like Alice—who says she used to burn her trash.
“The bags help quite a bit,” she says.
Deputy Bergey agrees. Since the end of last fall, the HOPE Team has given out around 400 bags. “We have noticed a difference with the cleanliness of camps,” she says.
New trash bag program helps close the garbage service gap
Report a bag
Anyone can report the white Metro trash bags for collection.
Call 503-234-3000 or
report them online
“There are other cleanup efforts in the region,” says Rob Nathan, senior solid waste planner for Metro. Portland and Gresham have the Clean Start program. And there is Clean and Safe downtown. But, he says, there are still gaps.
After meeting with representatives of local governments, law enforcement officers, community health and outreach workers and people experiencing homelessness around greater Portland, Nathan says Metro decided to help fill the gap in places that weren’t already getting clean-up services.
In addition to the HOPE Team, Metro is working with a range of other partners to distribute the bags, including Clackamas County Human Services, Clackamas Service Center, JOIN, Union Gospel Mission, and Washington County Department of Health and Human Services.
About six months after the program started, partners had given out nearly 7,000 bags. Metro’s three RID Patrol crews had picked up 276 bags at roughly 60 different locations around greater Portland. And other cleanup programs began reporting to Metro that they too had picked up Metro bags.
During those initial months, Nathan says, Metro and partners expected to see more bags going out than picked up. He attributes this to the newness of the program and to the time of year it started. Over the winter, folks need to keep their items dry. And the Metro bags are really durable.
So Metro has begun passing out clear bags for people’s personal items in addition to ordering 15,000 more trash bags.
Listening to community partners leads to expanding capacity
Beth Moore is someone who recently dialed Metro for a bag pick-up. She works at Baxter Auto Parts near Delta Park in North Portland where she says she has noticed an increase in garbage over the years.
“We have a terrible problem down here,” she says. “Trash is everywhere. Delta Park is a mess. And it’s frustrating.”
Moore reported the Metro trash bags on a Friday afternoon. When the Metro employee she spoke with told her they would pick up any trash piled next to the bags, she decided to comb through the bushes around the building—to get rid of even more litter that had been tossed there.
“I’m pretty sure it was picked up the same day,” she says. “Because it was all gone by Monday morning.”
As with all RID reports, Metro’s response time is between one to three business days. But, according to Nathan, RID crews are prioritizing the bag reports and doing their best to respond within one business day. That quick response aims to serve everyone.
“We keep hearing from our partners (that) the more people are moved, the harder it is to provide them with transitional services, healthcare and housing—all those things we need to get people off the street,” Nathan says. “Our partners are really excited about this program because they see this as a tool to help keep people stable, in one spot, and complained about less.”
Metro also is working with Central City Concern on a workforce development program. Sometime this summer Metro expects to add a fourth RID Patrol crew staffed through Central City Concern. The idea is to create job opportunities for people coming out of homelessness and to increase Metro’s capacity to pick up bags.
Nathan says a big part of the work is “shifting the narrative from garbage to people.”
Learn more about the challenges to trash disposal that people experiencing homelessness face. Outside the Frame, an organization that seeks to empower homeless and marginalized youth to tell their stories, partnered with Metro to create a short film about the topic. Take a look.