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City of Elk Grove handing out gift cards to keep homeless camps clean

The city says the program is a cost savings solution and also builds better relationships between people experiencing homelessness and Elk Grove police.

ELK GROVE, California — The city of Elk Grove is paying people experiencing homelessness small amounts of money to help keep their camps clean.

The program is a cost savings solution, city officials said, and also builds better relationships between the unhoused community and the Elk Grove Police Department. 

"It's cool that Elk Grove stepped their game up, and at least they're trying to do something," a man who asked ABC10 to call him Josh said. In return for keeping his camp clean, he's been getting gift cards from the city.

On Wednesday, Josh was sorting through piles of belongings and trash in front of a camp alongside Highway 99 in Elk Grove. It's a place he has called home for the last few months. 

Every other week, city officials provide trash bags and pick up piles of trash from the camps. Afterwards, Elk Grove police officers hand out $20 gift cards that people can spend on food and personal hygiene products at stores like Dollar Tree and Raley's. 

Sarah Bontrager, Elk Grove Housing and Public Services Manager, said the city introduced the program about a year ago, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of it had to do with keeping public works employees safe, but the program has also resulted in some savings by taking the workload off the public works team.

"We could easily have spent $10,000 a month on that program, just doing regular cleanups. And now, our entire program operating for about a year, we haven’t even spent $10,000," Bontrager said.

Elk Grove Police Homeless Outreach Officer Jennifer McCue said those who participate gather the trash in piles and even sometimes help load the trucks.

"And we've actually even gotten some people into housing with the relationships we've built with them by going out to their camps every week," McCue said.

Those who receive the gift cards cannot spend the money on cigarettes or alcohol. While it's the first city in the area to adopt this kind of program, other cities in the area have been in talks to do it, as well. 

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