Cleanslate initiative helps brighten city’s streets, creates second-chance jobs
When Jerome Prince ran for mayor of Gary in 2019, one of his platform issues was to rid the city of debris and garbage.
Quite simply, he wanted to have a “clean” city.
“Right after the election last year, I started investigating ways to clean up. I came across a number of ideas,” Prince said. “One initiative that we thought about was to hire a few goats to get out and chop down the weeds.”
Kidding aside, Prince learned about a program that has been doing cleanup work in Chicago for more than a decade. It also gives its workers a new lease on life.
“I came across Cleanslate,” Prince said. “I immediately knew this was the program for the city of Gary.”
Started in 2005, Cleanslate is now in more than two dozen Chicago neighborhoods. It provides transitional job opportunities for those who have dealt with misfortunes like homelessness.
In Gary, Cleanslate is expected to create 15 to 25 jobs annually for residents while providing cleaner, safer streets.
“Cleanslate is much more than a cleanup organization or an entity. They are (an) entity that changes people’s lives,” Prince said during a press conference surrounded by piles of debris and overgrown weeds near Front and Virginia streets in Gary. Parked near Prince at the media event were large dump trucks ready to begin cleaning up the long-abandoned corner near downtown Gary.
Since launching in July in Gary, the program has hired 11 women to begin working in positions with the city’s streets department.
“We’ve been assisting individuals to move out poverty and homelessness into employment,” said Brady Gott, managing director of Cleanslate. “People end up in these situations either because of a misstep or a misfortune, (and) it’s been great to take our work in what we’ve been doing in Chicago for 15 years and partner with the city of Gary.”
Gott said Gary has several abandoned buildings and vacant lots that have been neglected for years that need cleaning up. Right now, the focus is on neighborhoods in Gary, but it will soon move to the main streets such as Broadway.
“Our purpose is two-fold,” Gott said. “One is to provide a valuable service to the city of Gary in helping keeping the arterial streets clean, to help the city workers and stay on top of fly dumping and other types of vandalism in the city (as well as) to work with Gary residents to help them take that next step in their career.”
Gott said some of the people his program recruits might not be attractive to private employers because of gaps in employment or issues with their backgrounds such as with substance or domestic abuse issues.
“The reality is there (are) issues that often overlap with homelessness and poverty,” Gott said. “But sometimes people are in those situations not because of a misstep but a misfortune, (and) we’ve employed people who have chosen homelessness over a domestic violence situation.”
Gott said those individuals often move on to employment with private firms.
Maria Kim, president and CEO of Cara, said the program got its start in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. She said she can see the difference in how the program is making communities better.
“We could recognize the neighborhood changed as a result of us being there,” Kim said. “When streets are cleaner and safer, people walk with a little bit different swagger in their neighborhood, (and) we give pride back in the communities in which we live.”
Each year, Cleanslate collects up to 2,200 tons of recycling material and trash from Chicago neighborhoods, while providing some 400 jobs, Kim said.
Kim said the organization is honored to be part of the renaissance of the city of Gary. “We are so grateful for being a part of this journey,” Kim said. “We’re so looking forward to creating the same kind of momentum here in Gary, (and) we want to be part of the process of bringing back this city.”