Even on a wet February day, the gray skies and constant rain does not stop Allegheny CleanWays from doing what it does best. Volunteers are removing piles of trash from empty lots, alleyways and residences in Homewood.
Since its founding in 2000, the group’s focus has been on cleaning up illegal dump sites all over Allegheny County.
“We have two programs,” says Hannah Samuels, Allegheny CleanWays volunteer and outreach coordinator. “We have our land-based clean-up program Dump Busters and that's crews of people going out cleaning up dump sites in different communities. And we have riverfront clean up which is our Tireless Project and that is going on the river—on a boat—and clean up our river banks.”
Over the past 18 years, more than 13,000 Allegheny CleanWays volunteers have helped clean up more than 5 million pounds of garbage. The organization learns of problem areas through tips received by phone or email from community members.
Sameuls adds that the work is not singularly about beautificuation; she says there is a psychological element to their work.
"One of the main reasons why cleaning up these neighborhoods is so important is green spaces are better for mental health for those communities," she says.
Last year, AlleghenyCleanways spearheaded an effort to track illegal dumping hotspots by conducting a comprehensive countywide survey of dump sites.
“We have a map that goes to every dump site in the county,” Samuels says. “So, we have a very big take on all of the different neighborhoods and problem areas."
Much of the information gathered in the survey was collected directly by AlleghenyCleanways crews and volunteers.
“We would basically drive down the street, we’d see a dump site, stop take pictures of it, record it,” says crew leader Al Chernov.
As for funding, Allegheny CleanWays receives grants from foundations and individual contributors. The truck the organization uses was donated by the EQT Corporation.
Chernov says the City of Pittsburgh also helps keep costs low.
"We have an agreement with the city that we're allowed to take the garbage to their Public Works facility, it’s a transfer station,” he says. “That’s opposed to taking it to a commercial dump site which would cost us money."
Homewood is one of the primary focus neighborhoods. According to Jerome Jackson, executive director with Operation Better Block, trash is often found in abundance in Homewood—much of it dumped by people who do not even live in the neightborhood.
“I will say that contractors use Homewood as a dumping ground,” Jackson says. “Whether it is they are fixing up somebody's house in Homewood and they don't want to take it to the dump and pay that extra fee. We find tires and everything and, nine times out of 10, those people don't actually live here.”
Samuels says the reaction from local residents has been positive.
“Everybody has been extremely kind and receptive,” she says.
She says that while Allegheny CleanWays primary mission is cleaning up trash and dump sites, working to mitigate dumping's both environmental and aesthetic harm, the neighborly intearctions have served as something of a fringe benefit.
“We’ll be cleaning up and someone wanders down the alleyway and they start picking up litter.We always call that positive community engagement we every interaction we're always looking for something good.”