Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday kicked off California's $1.1 billion plan to clean trash and graffiti from highways, roads and other public spaces, an effort he said will beautify the state and create up to 11,000 jobs.
“This is an unprecedented effort to acknowledge what all of us recognize as we drive around this state: It's too damn dirty!” Newsom said from the side of a San Francisco Bay Area highway.
At-risk youth and people who were formerly homeless or formerly incarcerated will be given priority for the jobs created by the three-year program. In the last week, 400 people have already been hired or offered a job, Newsom said.
The cleanup comes amid growing frustration with homeless encampments that have sprouted under highway overpasses and near freeway exit and entry ramps throughout California in the past few years. The encampments have grown during the pandemic, and many are crammed with discarded sofas, mattresses and other trash.
An estimated 161,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the nation's most populous state, more than in any other. Advocates say they can't house people quickly enough with a shortage of housing units and high rents.
The Clean California program funds are not allowed to be used to displace people experiencing homelessness.
The Democratic governor, who faces a recall election this year, pointed out Wednesday that he has proposed $12 billion to get more people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into homes of their own.
“When our teams are out there on encampments notifying people of our intent to clean up an encampment, we're doing so with more resources than any time in California history to follow through on our commitment to get people housed, and get people out of these dangerous environments,” he said in Richmond.
California's transportation agency, Caltrans, is responsible for maintaining many of the roadways but has struggled to keep up. Newsom's office said Caltrans collected 270,000 cubic yards of trash in 2020 — enough to load 18,000 garbage trucks.
Newsom said the biggest single investment the state previously made to remove litter from public spaces was $110 million. He later traveled to Fresno, in central California, and helped a Caltrans crew pick up trash from the side of a highway in 95-degree weather. He also planned to visit Southern California as part of several events to highlight the cleaning plan.
John Cox, a Republican candidate for California governor, campaigned in Fresno hours earlier with an 8-foot (2.4-meter) ball of trash he uses to tout his homelessness plan, which calls for forcing homeless people into mental health or addiction treatment before providing them with housing.
The beautification plan will be a partnership with cities and counties, which will receive one-third of the money in grants, the governor said.
“Those dollars will be leveraged well beyond a billion-dollar state investment because we're going to leverage local dollars with a matching program,” he said.
Beyond cleanup, the effort is about adding art to public spaces, Newsom said.
“It's not just about addressing encampments. It's also about leaving something behind, beautifying the landscape and looking at art components” such as murals, he said.
Newsom first announced a $1.5 billion Clean California initiative in May, but the Legislature decreased the funding to $1.1 billion in the final budget the governor signed last month.