Back in October, 2018 when The Citizen first wrote about Adam Kesselman’s non-profit, City Bright Philadelphia, it had completed 10 cleanups, with help from 200 residents recruited from Philadelphia homeless shelters. Nearly five years later, the group has collected roughly 196,000 pounds of trash — and Kesselman has ambitions well beyond beyond cleaning up.
He wants to offer meaningful help to the people behind the cleanups to move toward self-sustaining financial independence.
“All it takes is one person every day to pick up one piece of trash,” Kesselman says. “If everybody picked up one piece of trash everyday, it’d be amazing how much cleaner the city of Philadelphia — and the world — would be.” He thinks the same way about helping people experiencing homelessness — only one person at a time.
Almost 1,800 people have participated in City Bright Philadelphia’s Saturday morning cleanups. This Saturday, April 15, you could be one of them. Volunteers will gather at the Gaudenzia House of Passage/Kirkbride Center Homeless Shelter in West Philadelphia for City Bright Philadelphia’s 49th community cleanup. Coinciding with the Philly Spring Cleanup, the event is also the group’s first collaboration with Trashmitter, Jason Centeno’s “Uber for Trash,” an on-demand trash removal app, and their first post-Covid cleanup.
Two problems, one solution
Kesselman is Sr. V.P. of corporate development at Health Union, a Philadelphia company that creates digital communities for people with rare and chronic diseases. Previously, he’s been an adjunct professor at Temple University, visiting professor at Wharton, and entrepreneur-in-residence at Drexel. Oh, and he serves on the board of the Washington Square West Civic Association.
If this sounds like hard work, that’s the point. “I’m all about making my city better because I’m proud of being a Philadelphian. I’m proud of being part of the grit of Philadelphia,” he says. “And we get things done through hard work. Period.”
City Bright Philadelphia’s operation is simple by design. They plan each street cleaning on Saturday mornings near a homeless shelter. So far, they’ve partnered with five shelters in North and West Philly.
“In Philadelphia it takes leadership to move problems into solutions,” says Kesselman. “And homelessness is a problem in our city like it is in many cities and across the nation. But Philadelphia has so much to offer. And if we can just get more people doing more and just doing little things, we can move that rock up the hill.”
The idea behind the location: No transportation is needed for the shelter residents, who, in cleaning up the neighborhood, address the NIMBY issue directly. “We want the homeless shelters and the people who are living in the shelters to be giving back to the community,” says Kesselman. “So they clean in the community in which they reside.”
The organization also opens the event to volunteers. Companies and individuals can sponsor cleanups and recruit volunteers as a team- or community-building activity. Generally, between 20 and 40 people come to the cleanups. The crew breaks into smaller groups to cover more ground. There are plenty of breaks, so the work isn’t too physically demanding.
“Believe it or not, when you squat down and you pick up trash for two and a half hours, you’ve done about a couple hundred squats, so it can be physically challenging,” he says. “But I want to make sure that we go at a slow enough pace and an easy enough pace that nobody’s really physically taxed. And of course, if anybody gets too tired and they have to go back early, it doesn’t change anything.”
Each cleanup runs about two-and-a-half-hour hours. Participating shelter residents receive $20 per shift, enough to help cover items like toiletries, meals, etc. More importantly, Kesselman writes letters of reference for workers who participate in more than two events.
From part-time work to sustainable stability
Kesselman has been thinking for some time about the next step for his organization. As he explained when he first spoke with the Citizen in 2018, “The goal is not to have hordes and hordes of homeless people clean the city. The goal is to have City Bright help them get jobs.”
After seeing the power that his letters of reference had in getting work for people trying to get on their feet, Kesselman launched “Path to Employment” to pair businesses with people living in shelters who have a variety of skills, connecting them with jobs and a means to obtain housing.
The added and much-needed benefit of moving shelter residents into more permanent homes? It frees up limited shelter space for more unhoused Philadelphians.
Kesselman’s pilot program has yet to launch, but will start by identifying potential participants with the homeless shelters he’s partnered with. The next step is to create a training curriculum that provides foundational skills for maintaining employment. This includes resume writing, interviewing skills, computer basics, and more. Potential employers will be able to contract with City Bright in a sort of “try before you buy” model. Participants contract with an employer to earn income, experience, and finally, sustainable employment.
At this early stage, Path to Employment’s development is centered on identifying needs and taking small steps.
“I don’t want to assume that somebody who’s facing homelessness does or does not know how to do their own finances, create a LinkedIn profile, or create a resume or write a thank you letter,” Kesselman explains. “Our intention is to start small with a couple of projects and try them out. I don’t assume by the way, that these shelters are not doing all those things already. So, we want to start to identify the gaps, to understand where there are opportunities and what types of resources and educational classes may be of value.”
Right now, Kesselman is looking to recruit companies and donors, and demonstrate proof of concept through the pilot with Trashmitter. “We hope that out of this cleanup, we’ll find a group of people who can work for Trashmitter in the roles that they have, for them to get sustainable financial resources that they can utilize to move out of the homeless shelter and create room for those who are on the waiting list to get off of the streets,” he says.
Trashmitter founder Centeno is on board. “For me, Trashmitter’s goal is to team up with organizations like City Bright and others to essentially create an on-demand ‘Trash Force’ that can help serve citizens in neighborhoods and commercial corridors in a way that has never been seen before,” he says. “We aim to create Street Magic like David Blaine, where people go, How the heck did they do that?”
Two of the most seemingly intractable problems in Philadelphia — and many other cities — are homelessness and litter. Could it really be as simple as putting those two seemingly broken pieces together to form a solution?
Kesselman has a convincing answer: “In Philadelphia it takes leadership to move problems into solutions. And homelessness is a problem in our city like it is in many cities and across the nation. But Philadelphia has so much to offer. If we can get more people doing more — just doing little things — we can move that rock up the hill.”
MORE COVERAGE OF THE TRASH CRISIS FROM THE CITIZENPhoto courtesy of City Bright Philaadelphia.