This Presbyterian Night Shelter Is Waging a War on Poverty that Is Actually Working

In the fight against homelessness, creative opportunities and honest hard work provide the most effective remedy.

If you’re a social-mediaite like most people nowadays, you’ve no doubt come across a popular video purporting to show the City of Fort Worth tackling homelessness by paying people to pick up trash. This noble project has mobilized social media armies to quickly like, share, and praise the effort, then move on and forget it. In all likelihood, however, everything you know about the Clean Slate Program is wrong.

The reality is far better than that quick-cut edited video. Fans of government intervention will no doubt find the superficial presentation of the program to be a great solution. In reality, the city of Fort Worth does not run this program, but is a client of a private business. So, if you favor a more sustainable program that you can actually promote, here it is.

Clean Slate is an initiative of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Presbyterian Night Shelter. While marketed as picking up trash for the city, the program goes well beyond public works. Clean Slate is a business, not a handout program. It is fully revenue-based, and operates as a contractor with businesses and entities in the area. Rather than the homeless getting cash for trash, Clean Slate actually seeks contracts with those in need of services and provides employees to meet those needs. The city of Fort Worth is merely one customer, with a $48,000 annual contract for trash pick up. Through litter services, the program cleaned 3,856 tons of waste off the streets in 2017 alone.

Although the city approached Clean Slate to contract for litter service, it was the second client of the program, which had already hit the ground running in June 2016 with its first staff member and October 2016 with its first client.

Outside of that contract, homeless employees work everything from temporary tasks to ‘9 to 5’ day jobs. From janitorial crews to event ushers, employees are able to meet demand for services in a way that bolsters the local economy and provides relief for an opportunity-lacking population.

Many homeless people are overlooked by the labor market because of inexperience or criminal records. Clean Slate directly challenges these obstacles by developing its own small businesses like cleaning crews and building maintenance, which then contract with businesses that do not have in-house employees for such tasks. Because Clean Slate hires its own employees, it sets its own standards, providing flexibility not afforded by many businesses.

Clean Slate employees are drawn from the homeless population around the Presbyterian Night Shelter. Through skills workshops and training programs, the shelter identifies willing and hardworking candidates, who must apply and interview for jobs. While drug tests and background checks are used, candidates are not rigidly discriminated against because of their past. Active drug use and violence are strict barriers to employment, so businesses contracting with Clean Slate do not worry about risky contractors. Only two employees have been fired since the program’s inception two years ago.

Without proven results, skeptics would be justified in questioning the effectiveness of the program, but the results do show promise. In the last year, the program made 40 employment contracts. From those contracts, Clean Slate employed 34 people, including five full-time, 11 part-time, and 18 temporary workers. Of the 16 full- or part-time employees in 2017, nine overcame homelessness and moved out of the shelter. Four even transitioned away from Clean Slate employment and into other jobs. A total of $292,534 of secured income was earned last year alone. Importantly, this is income to the program, not handouts from it. Through August 2018, Clean Slate has earned approximately $1,010,000 in total revenue. Employees earn between $8 and $10 per hour for their work, which surpasses government-mandated minimum wage laws.

The ultimate goal of the program is to restore a sense of self worth to help people rebuild their lives. Rather than attempt to build their lives for them, Clean Slate provides opportunities for honest work and responsibility. This free-market approach adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The program is revenue-based and adds to the economic vibrancy of the area, but also adds the sense of accomplishment and dignity that only comes from work.

Clean Slate CEO Toby Owen explained that employees do not outgrow the program when they overcome homelessness. Temporarily working for Clean Slate and attempting to move straight into another job is difficult, so employees are welcome to stay in their position as long as they want.

The Presbyterian Night Shelter recognizes that the traditional model of fighting homelessness is broken. The handout model fails to instill long-term work ethic or self worth, and simply providing training fails to overcome the rigidity of hiring practices. Clean Slate was born as a creative solution to a public crisis. As the marketing material explains, “By contracting with Clean Slate, you can partner with us to end homelessness in our community outside of traditional volunteer and donation opportunities while receiving a quality service.”

Because the program does not run on donations or handouts, the only limit on the number of employees is market demand and potential clients. There is also little potential for waste or make-work projects, because the jobs are contracted for. Businesses, churches, non-profits, and municipalities with work to be done can contract with Clean Slate to effectively meet their needs while expanding this fight against homelessness.

Other cities across the country have initiated similar pilot programs and worked to improve their responses to homelessness. The strength of Clean Slate is that it is not a city-run or government-subsidized program.

Run as a business under the Presbyterian Night Shelter, the revenue from contracts goes to pay employees, and whatever profit remains is recycled into the night shelter to provide more skills training, beds, food, and counseling services. The business stands alone, supports its individual employees, and supports the entire apparatus of the shelter. In this way, not only does the program not require government assistance, but the shelter itself is far less reliant on government assistance, and strives for eventual self-sufficiency.

The program is far more sustainable than war-on-poverty style government projects. It meets real demand, provides real opportunity, and has real results. Private actors can accomplish far more–and do so more efficiently–than government, and this is no exception. In the fight against homelessness, creative opportunities and honest hard work provide the most effective remedy.  

Further Reading

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