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February 04, 2012

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Canada – 4 Feb 2012 –

It’s a familiar sound: the jangle of a shopping cart filled with empties being pushed down a bumpy back alley. In many parts of the city, bottle pickers are so commonplace that people aren’t surprised if what they leave outside their blue bins is gone within minutes. For a picker, it isn’t a lot of coin (a productive seven-hour shift might fetch $30 at the depot), but the best runs — Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the morning — will afford six beers, maybe some cigarettes and a few groceries. Most of the time that’s good enough.

While panhandling is now virtually nonexistent in Calgary (at last count there were 30 panhandlers), “picking” or “binning,” has spiked. It sustains a growing sub-industry and increasingly — albeit inadvertently — aids in the city’s lofty plan to end homelessness. A night in the life of a bottle-picker reveals a veritable 24-hour workforce 250-or-so-strong of bin-people who, in addition to collecting cans and bottles, find food and clothes, and whose homes — if they have one — are furnished largely by what other Calgarians leave at their curb.

“If you don’t work, you pick,” said Kirk Black, 53, a bona fide binner. He is a jovial man (“Monsieur Noir, if you’re French,” he says) with a beard like cement, hardened maybe from decades of on-and-off-again construction work. He explains how, like many others, he “fell through holes,” ending up down and out. “But I never let myself go. You got to keep a positive attitude or else you’ll screw yourself up.”

If you saw Black on the street with a bag of bottles slung over his shoulder and assumed, as most might, he was without a home, you’d be mistaken. In fact, he lives with six other men — five of whom pick regularly — in a house nicknamed Alpha Hotel. They are Calgary’s “housed” homeless; their accommodation an experimental first step in a 10-year plan to end homelessness. An assessment of that 10-year plan, the first in Canada, will be announced Monday.

Allison Flegg, housing co-ordinator for Calgary Alpha House Society, explains what seems obvious but bears repeating: ending homelessness means finding everyone a home.

“Sometimes you’re able to move forward once you have a place to live,” said Flegg, explaining Alpha House’s continuum of care, from a 24-hour downtown outreach team to intox and detox shelters and works-in-progress like the Alpha Hotel. “We can meet their needs wherever they are in life, or wherever they’re at on a specific day.”

Alpha Hotel is a temporary, transitional place for most but residents can stay as long as they wish. Black has been there since it opened in July 2010. He thinks he was homeless for more than 10 years before that.

The Calgary Homeless Foundation’s 10-year-plan is built around a guiding principle of “housing first.” That is to get the person off the street first, and then combine that with treatment services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. Alpha House — along with a loose collaboration of individuals, businesses, not-for-profits, governments, bylaw and police have adopted it, too.

In the summer of 2010, the Calgary Homeless Foundation did an ethnographic study of individuals collecting bottles and found they earn on average $3.50 to $5.75 an hour, work seven hours each day often starting at 5 a.m. and travel by foot as much as 25 kilometres. It also found binning is sharply on the rise.

The men of Alpha Hotel can tell you all there is to know about the trade: a small garbage bag full is worth $7.50, a big bag is $20, and an area six city blocks by six city blocks is worth about a half-dozen beers. With accommodation paid for and a base of $260 per month provided by the government — up to $1,188 for anyone on AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) — extra money picking bottles goes a long way.

“Some places are excellent because they’re very rich,” Black said. “Sometimes you fill a cart and then got to push that all over hell’s half-acre.”

Another housemate, Kevin Schroeder, bottle picked in Mount Royal earlier, a hilly route he chose on purpose to get blood-flow back in a leg after surgery. He walks with a shopping cart and a makeshift staff fashioned from a broomstick and a fork curled through the handle. The tines hook bags and he can scoop bottles from deep inside Dumpsters. This outing he came across a party tray of cheese-and-crackers left on a bin.

“If it’s left on the bin we know it’s good to eat,” he said.

“Now how do you put that in a backpack?” asked Black, jokingly aggrieved.

Each of the men at Alpha Hotel has a good-sized individual room. Schroeder’s pad looks like any university dorm with a bed, television — two, actually — milk crate shelves and dozens of knick-knacks all, for the most part, found while picking.

“I personally don’t bottle pick,” said a housemate the others simply call Big Matt. At 6’7” he ducks through the home’s doorways, the only one in the house who doesn’t pick. He opts instead to wait on Cash Corner most mornings — a 50-year-old Calgary institution, he calls it — where he has had more or less steady employment for the past seven years moving pianos and safes for 20 hours a week.

“Calgary’s homeless, as I see it, in the past 10 years got way too visible,” said another Alpha Hotel resident (who asked not to be named), citing a March 2010 talk by Sam Tsemberis, hosted by the Calgary Homeless Foundation. Tsemberis is founder and CEO of the New York-based Pathways to Housing, and widely credited as the originator of the “housing-first” model for homeless people with psychiatric disabilities. It’s a model now actively replicated in 40 cities in the United States as well as in Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

“He said the first step in eradicating homelessness is to get everyone off the streets. Get people under one roof at the Drop-In Centre or Mustard Seed or whatever, where they can do a census and you can be counted and categorized,” the resident said. “Then you can start to diagnose what sorts of problems they have, what kind of housing you can put them in and have they got alcohol or drug problems.”

Those in the homeless community who don’t accept shelter and choose to camp in parks or alcoves or near a warm vent are called “rough sleepers.” At one time, all the men of Alpha Hotel were rough sleepers.

“There used to be people crashed in these places and they’re not anymore,” said one. “Now it’s ‘keep ’em out, keep ’em out, keep ’em out.’”

These men worry their livelihood may also fall victim to these same fears.

Bottle picking is an offence in the city under bylaw #20M2001: “No person shall scavenge waste or recyclable material from a commercial bin, waste container.” But what’s interesting is how rarely it is used against a homeless person — never, in fact, in the experience of city bylaw manager Bill Bruce.

“It’s about harm. No harm, no foul,” he said, explaining the complex world of bylaws by comparing binning to a loud house party in which all neighbours are invited. “Technically it’s a violation of bylaw, scavenging, but it’s not a high complaint area.”

In fact, many households intentionally leave out bottles to be scavenged. Many even place food and unwanted clothing on top of the bin. Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, if residents of a community support binning, is it a bylaw infraction?

“What I see going on is people saying ‘thank you’ for doing a public service, taking these bottles to be recycled,” Bruce said. “I see it as a contract between you and the person patrolling the back alley. There’s no bylaw against helping homeless people out.”

While the collection of bottles may not be a high priority for city bylaw officers, the collection of rough sleepers is.

“When we had that cold snap, our focus turns to all the spots where homeless people hang out to make sure they have access to warm shelter,” Bruce said.

In the 10-year plan to end homelessness, bylaw officers play an active role — many times as the first contact. “You haven’t seen a lot of media about homeless encampments. We work with the homeless now. We go in, we don’t carry a lot of weapons on us, very low-key, and we explain this is a public park and that it isn’t allowed here.”

For Kirk and his fellow pickers who have housing, their focus rests on getting their goods to market. Every morning, before the Uptown Bottle Depot opens, there’s a lineup of pickers pushing shopping carts, lugging garbage bags and shouldering woebegone backpacks out front. It’s the epicentre of the bottle-picking industry in Calgary.

“Seems like everyone and their brother goes to Uptown,” Black said. “I think bottle pickers built the place.”

Every year, the Uptown surpasses the 40-million container mark, and everyday — seven days a week — it fills two, 15-metre trailers. What percentage of bottles are “picked” is unquantifiable but Mitch Gagne, operator of Uptown, imagines it to be in the vicinity of 25 to 50 per cent. His depot is the first contact with the customer whose commodity, once counted and categorized, will become aluminum sheeting or gypsum board or pulp or any number of plastic items.

Staff pre-sort containers for the Alberta Beverage Container Recycling Corp.’s regional facility in Ogden. That facility, in 2009 alone, recycled the equivalent weight of 39 Boeing 747s in aluminum cans, 16,584 cattle in recycled plastic beverage containers and kept 1,163,644,438 empty containers out of the landfill. Its website explains how single-serve containers 40 years ago created a litter problem.

But it also created an industry that many of the marginalized in society count on. It may not seem like much, but container by container, cart after cart, it adds up. By 11 a.m., Black and another housemate have enough bottles to cash in for 12 cans of beer.

They head home and the cycle repeats. Read the original article