Two hours into his shift on a cool, bright Thursday morning, Anthony Owens and his three-person crew of street cleaners did a little extra work, picking up some bottles from a fenced-in corner park in northeast Wilmington.

A privately run community space, it wasn’t part of their assigned trash route, but Owens said he knows neighbors like to walk through there.

Anthony Owens, who is participating in the City’s Beautiful City Initiative that contracts with the non-profit Wilmington HOPE Commission, walks along E. 22 St. looking to clean up the street. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett/Delaware News Journal)[/caption]“I know a lot of groups around here,” Owens explained. “The neighborhoods love when we come through.”

Then they rolled their trash bins along 22nd Street, continuing along their route.
Anthony Owens, who is participating in the City’s Beautiful City Initiative that contracts with the non-profit Wilmington HOPE Commission, walks along E. 22 St. looking to clean up the street. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett/Delaware News Journal)

It’s a simple job paying $11 an hour that they perform in different swaths of the northeast part of the city, Monday through Friday, from 7 am to noon. It’s part of the city of Wilmington’s beautification efforts announced under Mayor Mike Purzycki. Those include having city workers clean the busiest corridors, distributing new trash cans and giving nonprofits money to hire residents who need jobs to pick up trash on neighborhood routes.

In the case of Owens’ group, the cleaners are recently released prisoners participating in re-entry programs at the Wilmington HOPE Commission. For some, it’s the most formal job they’ve had. For others, it’s a way to hold down a stable position before moving on to better pay.

“It gives me a positive outlook, helping to give back,” Owens said. “I just want to stay on a positive track, do what I gotta do and not backtrack.” Tamera Fair, HOPE Commission executive director, said the program allows those who lack experience in the traditional workforce to develop basic skills of employment: showing up on time, adhering to a schedule, and answering to a supervisor. The city this year is spending about $400,000 to fund the program at the HOPE Commission and three other local nonprofits.

Participants in the City’s Beautiful City Initiative that contracts with the non-profit Wilmington HOPE Commission, walk down E. 22 St. looking to pick up discarded trash. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett/Delaware News Journal)

Al Rogers, a worker in Owens’ group, starts his days on the street cleaning route, then heads to the HOPE Commission’s center on Vandever Avenue, where he works as a janitor.
He grew up in the area, and returned there after being released from prison in January. It looked different, he said, with younger faces in the streets. But he knows the neighborhood well and enjoys hearing compliments from appreciative residents.

“I mean, I never worked,” Rogers said of his life before prison. “This is motivational for me, coming home with nothing.”

Al Rogers, who is participating in the City’s Beautiful City Initiative that contracts with the non-profit Wilmington HOPE Commission, picks up trash in a community park off Vandever Avenue. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett,/Delaware News Journal)

A few months into the job, the cleaners said they’ve noticed a difference. Neighbors recognize them in their bright orange vests, bringing them bottles of water and joining the cleanup efforts themselves. One block that once had enough trash to fill two bags is now down to one bag, Rogers said. One homeowner on Carter Street was so impressed that he gave the cleaners cash for their work.

“He said, ‘Yo, I appreciate that,'” Rogers recalled. “In a couple of days we went past, and it was clean.”

Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Send her your stories about coming home from prison at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. 

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