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San Jose programme pays homeless residents to collect litter

18 November 2020

by Sarah Wray

A pilot programme in the City of San Jose is incentivising homeless residents to collect litter at encampments. Payments of US$4 per bag of rubbish collected will be made via programmable and reloadable debit cards from Mastercard.

“All too often, we hear people point at the homeless as ‘the problem’ as they look at the blight, trash and encampments in our community,” said San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo. “I have spoken with many homeless residents who have expressed a desire to be part of the solution. Through Cash for Trash, we enlist our homeless neighbours in our battle against blight while paving a pathway for future interactions that will open many of our homeless residents to services and assistance.”

The initiative is part of the BeautifySJ Programme, launched in 2017 to bring San Jose community volunteers together to clean up public spaces and waterways.


The Cash for Trash pilot is funded through US$50,000 from the City of San Jose and a US$180,000 grant (US$60,000 per year until 2023) from the Valley Water utility company.

The January 2019 San José Homeless Census and Survey found a total of 6,097 people experiencing homelessness, a 40 percent increase from 2017 and the highest the number during the last 15 years.

After a delayed launch in February due to COVID-19, Cash for Trash will now take place at 40 locations throughout San Jose. BeautifySJ crews will distribute Cash for Trash bags at each location. Participants can exchange up to five bags for a total of US$20 per collection, which will be loaded onto a Mastercard City Key card. Funds can be used to pay for essential items but there are restrictions on goods like alcohol and tobacco.

During the first week of the programme at two sites, 27 homeless residents enrolled and collected over two tons of litter, Mayor Liccardo said.

Building blocks

San Jose is a member of Mastercard’s City Possible collaborative network for piloting new solutions and is the first city to launch a Cash for Trash programme as part of this but similar schemes are being considered elsewhere. Mastercard City Key, launched in 2019, allows municipalities to combine identification, access to city services and payment functionalities in one tool. It is now used in over 25 communities.

Danielle Lam, City Possible Enterprise Partnerships Manager for Mastercard, said during a press conference: “I think the most important thing to emphasise is that this is just the beginning. Yes, City Key is a mechanism to receive subsidies that you’re entitled to or funds in a dignified, safe way. But more importantly, it’s a building block to building trust with the city and the community.”

“The possibilities are really infinite, and we believe in the power of this collaboration,” she added.

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