A still from a Clean Team video documenting the pollution at Carbonero Creek.

When TJ Magallanes cofounded the Clean Team last fall, he never wanted the group to focus on organizing weekly cleanups, which have become the Santa Cruz coalition’s calling card.

“What we would do was go around and document areas that need attention,” Magallanes says. Instead of starting cleanups, Magallanes took pictures of places that needed to be cleaned, posting them online with GPS locations. He sent them to the city in hopes government officials would take the lead.

“I never wanted to go to deep in the cleanup part of it,” he says.

Magallanes worried that cleanups would become politically charged. Within the first month, Magallanes noticed changes: he was removed as an administrator from the group, and started doing cleanups.

“What it really turned into was vilification of different members of the community and of homeless people,” he says. Since then, Magallanes says administrators on the Clean Team’s Facebook page started deleting all of his comments.

A few weeks ago, Magallanes left the group altogether.  

Meanwhile, the Clean Team has indeed found itself the center of one controversy, after a recent online video captured an altercation at Carbonero Creek between a homeless man and Clean Team volunteer Ken Collins.

In the video, Collins stands over the prone transient man, swearing at him, telling him to pick up his trash and poking him with a metal stick.

The Clean Team’s rules specify no interaction with homeless people or active encampments. The video was taken down after the person who uploaded it claimed to have received anonymous threats, but a different user reposted it. Clean Team administrators declined to comment for this story.

For Collins, the video is an embarrassment he wants to put behind him. He feels it doesn’t represent the hard work he’s put into cleaning up in his community and battling the city council to improve sanitation and facilities for the public—including the homeless.

“That’s one bad moment in six months of doing cleanups. And I’m bummed. I’m not stoked on that one bit,” Collins says. “I have a wife and children, and I don’t want them seeing that, I don’t want people seeing that. But when you’re so passionate about the hometown you live in, and you’re looking at all this pollution and needles and crime, and you’re going out there and seeing it—I got emotionally carried away…that could happen to anybody.”

To Collins, a big-wave surfer who just got back from Chile, the video is a distraction from the issues on which he has single-mindedly focused—trash and waste in the parks and waterways around Santa Cruz. He doesn’t believe it’s right for others to make his work out to be political, or anti-homeless, as he doesn’t see it as such at all. He has, he says, continually received criticism from both liberals and conservatives, and feels caught between the left and right agendas in a political spectrum that doesn’t interest him.

“I’m trying to tell people stop making it complicated. It’s not complicated,” Collins says. “If there’s garbage all over the place, we need to pick it up. We need to get garbage cans. If there’s open defecations in our waterways, we need to have bathrooms. There’s not any other answer…That’s public safety.”

One thing Magallanes and Collins—who once worked together in this grassroots anti-trash effort—still agree on is that there shouldn’t be a need for it.

“As much as I want to help out and do good, I didn’t think it was our responsibility,” Magallanes says. “I wanted to get the city motivated to clean up.”

For his part, Collins has never been thrilled about picking up trash on Saturday mornings, and wants the city to step up. The problems, he says, are too big for any small group to handle.

“I’m not saying I’m Superman. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Righteous. I’m just saying there’s a problem, and we need to address it,” he says. “To me, it’s not like one side wants to ignore it. It seems like all parties don’t want to take this on. I feel like Santa Cruz doesn’t have any real leaders right now.”

Additional reporting contributed by Steve Palopoli.