Twice a day, James puts on a pair of gloves, grabs a plastic bag and combs the length of Linear Park in northwest Lancaster — more formally, the “Mayor Janice C. Stork Corridor Park” — picking up trash.
James doesn’t have permanent housing: He sleeps in a local shelter at night. For his efforts to keep the park clean, he receives a daily $20 stipend.
He is one of four homeless individuals recruited by Dave Costarella, a local roofer and musician. The other three are Michelle, who cleans Culliton Park; Red, at Binns Park; and Justin, at Reservoir Park. (One United Lancaster is referring to them by their first names only.)
For the past seven years, Costarella has run an informal one-man homelessness outreach service, his “My People on the Street” project. Over the winter, he raises money and accepts donations of socks, clothing and other necessities that he distributes to people living outdoors.
He started the cleanup project in mid-April, initially at Binns Park, then adding one park at a time. He said he’s exploring the idea of expanding beyond parks into neighborhood street cleaning.
He provides $40 a week toward the stipends out of his own pocket and is raising the remainder online. To date, the initiative has cost a little over $2,500.
Local stakeholders say they can see the improvement.
At Culliton Park, “Dave’s making a tremendous difference,” said Amos Stolzfus. He’s the director of SoWe, the Tenfold-sponsored group that promotes revitalization in the southwest neighborhood where the park is located.
“The park is clean. More people are enjoying it,” Stoltzfus said.
Miguel Arnau, who works for the city’s Bureau of Parks & Public Property, said the change is clearly visible, especially on weekends.
Costarella said the work gives his recruits a taste of responsibility and is leading to improved self-esteem. He tries to pick leaders, he said: They command a certain level of respect, so if they change their behavior, most other homeless individuals will go along with it.
Arnau agreed. At Culliton, he said, people tell each other not to dirty the park, because Michelle has to take care of it.
Michelle herself said: “I just do what’s needed.”
A need for collaboration
When Millersville University’s Center for Public Scholarship & Social Change interviewed stakeholders for its report on homelessness in Binns Park, trash was one of the top concerns. Respondents noted the presence of food waste, human waste and other debris.
Costarella and other advocates say much of the problem stems from interlopers: Individuals who have a roof over their heads but frequent the parks to do drugs or engage in other unsavory behaviors. Some congregants told the interviewers that they try to keep things clean and are frustrated that others don’t.
Among other things, the Binns Park study recommended “engaging congregants” and “developing collaboration between formal programs and grassroots volunteers.” It looks like that’s what Costarella is doing, said Jennifer Frank, a social work professor at Millersville University and one of the study’s co-authors.
Costarella has consistently advocated for involving the homeless themselves in the provision of the services they receive as a way to promote self-sufficiency and responsibility.
“Many individuals in the homeless community are smart, capable and willing to be of use,” he wrote in “A Fresh Approach: Serving Our Homeless,” a white paper he wrote and published in mid-2020. (Editor’s note: Tim Stuhldreher, One United Lancaster’s editor and the author of this article, assisted with “A Fresh Approach”‘s editing and formatting.)
‘This is real’
Costarella is acutely aware of potential pitfalls. Individuals who live on the streets have many struggles, and stress can trigger trauma responses and relapses.
That just happened to Red, the Binns Park cleaner. The park has been closed for renovations, so individuals are congregating instead in the limited space around the Veterans Memorial at the corner of West Chestnut and North Queen streets.
Red continued trying to keep that area clean but recently became frustrated “with the constant trash and disrespect,” got drunk and was arrested, Costarella reported in a Facebook post. Red sobered up, was released after being issued a citation for public intoxication and is back on the job, Costarella told One United Lancaster.
“I’m dealing with broken people that need some wind under their sails,” Costarella wrote. “… This is real; I’m in it for the long haul as long as I can see a little day light from somewhere.”
His initiative has to grow and evolve, he told One United Lancaster: “It has to be a movement. … It has to get bigger than this to succeed.”
Stoltzfus said SoWe is keeping an eye on how the cleanups are playing out at Culliton, and considering whether it might be able to support the initiative in some form.
Jess King, city chief of staff, said: “We appreciate Dave’s efforts to find creative approaches to engaging those experiencing homelessness in maintaining public places in the City. What we’ve heard and seen so far is that it has been a successful approach to engaging neighbors and providing meaningful opportunity to use their skills and abilities to tend to public places all of us care about and use.”