Todd the Volunteer is cleaning up local streets to blaze a trail out of homelessness
Story and photographs by Kyle Knoll
When people see Todd Olin picking up trash on the side of the road, their instinct is often that something doesn’t add up. There’s the white T-shirt and a Dayglow orange vest, but he’s not part of a city work crew — it’s just him out there, and a single handcart bursting with well-worn tools.
But three words emblazoned in thick black marker on handwritten signs and the back of his vest identify this man as someone who has christened himself with a unique identity rooted in dignity through selfless hard work: “Todd the Volunteer.”
In recent weeks, Todd the Volunteer has stuffed hundreds of plastic trash bags with litter and debris he’s singlehandedly picked up along local streets, arranging them in neat piles or orderly rows that can stretch for a whole city block. He scoured the intersection of Abbot Kinney and Washington boulevards, traversed the Marina (90) Freeway onramp from Mindanao Way to Lincoln Boulevard, and transformed the edge of the Ballona Wetlands from Fiji Way to Ballona Creek. He picked the Culver Loop clean — even trimming overgrown weeds in the median — and continued east along the wetlands all the way to the 90 freeway entrance.
“Every person that has ever stopped has said, ‘Man, I wish there was more people like you!’” says Olin, a 52-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, a deep mahogany tan, faded tattoos, clear brown eyes and hands made rough from years of working outdoors. “People call me ‘Sir.’”
As Todd the Volunteer, Olin has been laboring to win recognition of the dignity and untapped potential of homeless people since becoming homeless himself in 2015.
“A lot of people don’t think I look like a homeless person. … But what does a homeless person look like?” he remarks.
Olin describes himself as a “pioneer” who’s carving a path along which any able-bodied person of sound mind can work his or her way off the streets and out of homelessness.
“There’s barriers, when you’re homeless, to getting a job— like not having a resume or being able to get ready for an interview. It’s difficult to wake up behind a dumpster and get to your job at eight o’clock,” Olin says. But the way he sees it, “Your interview is right there on the street. I’ve had over 60 job offers doing that.”
He recognizes that his decision to remain homeless despite other opportunities confounds some of those who stop to donate water, clothing or cash.
“I could have been off the street after three months, when I got my first job offer, but I knew that I was on to something. I couldn’t take a job without doing everything I possibly could to get this to become a national thing,” he says. “I believe in my mission. If I can get this plan out there and available to homeless people as an option, what greater accomplishment could there be?”
In Olin’s mind, his work isn’t really done until others who face seemingly insurmountable barriers to landing a job start building their own tangible resumes by contributing to their communities.
“I’m just one person and I make a difference,” he says. “Imagine if there were 20 of me out there cleaning the streets. Homeless people would be fighting over places to clean!”
Olin’s wish for others to walk in his footsteps hasn’t come true yet, but he has been getting widespread recognition from locals who value his work.
Since beginning his mission nearly three years ago in the Anaheim area, more than 750 people have pledged in excess of $23,000 to fund the continuation of his work via a GoFundMe page — hundreds of those donations pouring in as he’s worked on the Westside these past few weeks.
Marina del Rey resident Cynthia Shabes, president of the American Sailing Association, said she and her husband stopped to give Olin some money in appreciation of his complete turnaround of the Culver Loop’s appearance.
“I am inspired by him,” says Shabes. “I think he’s doing a wonderful job, and I would like to see this man recognized.”
Recently an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputy noticed Olin working near the Culver Boulevard Bridge on a very hot day and awarded him a Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station “challenge coin” — a small medallion used to recognize special achievements and signify acceptance within a police or military organization.
“He cleans more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Lt. Chris Johnson, the station’s second in command, who has also taken note of Olin’s work. “I hope people join the cause.”
Olin possesses uncommon grit, but bad breaks have become an increasingly ordinary fact of life without a permanent address.
He came to West L.A. in hopes of purchasing a motorhome to sleep in, but says the deal went sour and left him stranded — and noticing all the work he could do here.
These days, however, the other concern gnawing at the back of his mind while he works is finding his lost puppy. Bingo, a six-month-old Chihuahua- dachshund mix with an amber red coat, went missing two weeks ago while leashed to the wrist of Olin’s sleeping girlfriend near the McDonald’s on Lincoln Boulevard and Coeur d’Alene Avenue. Olin was working along the 90 Freeway at the time and doesn’t know if Bingo was stolen or just wandered off, just that he hasn’t seen the dog since.
In May, Olin lost the motorhome where he, his girlfriend and Bingo had been sleeping in Huntington Beach. The engine was dead and he couldn’t repair it in time to avoid it being towed away. For a while Olin had been able to tow it with an old four-wheel drive Nissan, he says, but that truck was totaled when someone rear-ended him one night on his way back from a laundromat.
Back in December 2016, he got hit by a car while riding a motorized bicycle and ended up loading his gear into two shopping carts and pushing it for four miles with an injured leg. Two days later, “I took the brace off my leg and just went back to work,” he recounts. “I missed working a year straight by two days.”
A native of Long Beach who has two adult children, Olin says he initially became homeless two months after a November 2014 motorcycle crash on Lincoln Boulevard left him temporarily unable to work and pay rent.
“It’s kind of ironic that I wound up out here cleaning the streets three years later,” he says.
Leading up to the crash, he’d been in and out of jail while in the grip of methamphetamine addiction. After hitting rock bottom, Olin decided to start cleaning up his life by cleaning up trash, and now celebrates more than two years of sobriety.
Olin started out cleaning up underpasses in Buena Park and eventually made his way to Anaheim in July 2016 and Garden Grove in early 2017.
“I cleaned all of the underpasses of the 22 from the Harbor exit to Golden West — that’s 13 underpasses. It took me six months,” he recalls.
In Garden Grove his work was so prolific that the mayor dispatched public works crews to pick up his bags and local police awarded him his first challenge coin for those efforts, according to a November 2016 story in the Orange County Register.
Olin acknowledges that the notoriety from his work affords him both a sense of personal accomplishment and a level of community status that’s often rewarded with free meals and other gifts, but he’s found hope to be much less abundant among others who are living on the streets.
“Once you become homeless, people pretty much give up hope. What I’m doing is I’m bringing back hope,” he says. “There is an escape, there is a way out. And this is it.”
His big dream is to appear on a national talk show and distribute a self-help booklet guiding homeless people on how to work their way off the streets through volunteer efforts to improve neighborhoods.
“It will work for anybody that wants it,” he says. “As an achievement in life, there’s nobody that will ever be in a better positon than I am right now to kick this thing off.”
Search “Todd the Volunteer” on GoFundMe or email email@example.com to contact Olin or fund his ongoing work.