Green Crows – Talking with Victoria’s bottle collectors

For some it's about getting food to eat and booze to drink, but for others it's an entirely different story

Patrice lives in the park and collects bottles

Patrice lives in the park and collects bottles

We’ve all seen them — the “binners.” They’re the ones who sort through trash containers in search of bottles, cans and anything else that can be reused, recycled or converted to cash. They carry their worldly possessions in an assortment of backpacks, bags and blankets. Some ride salvaged bikes or push shopping carts overflowing with plastic bags of “treasure.”

They’re the flotsam of our city and many of us tend to let our eyes and awareness pass over as though they were invisible.

I met a fellow named Nick to ask about this phenomenon. Nick is what social agencies call “houseless” — living in an institution where a regular parade of similarly challenged individuals come and go daily. I ask if he ever makes friends.

“I don’t even ask their names,” he says. “They come and go and it’s no sense in getting attached. . . . They’re like the crows you see hopping around the bins. They’re all the same and even if you get their names and make friends, chances are they’d just fly off somewhere and you’d never see them again.”

Nick’s rather depressing assessment of the homeless may be justified, but it isn’t entirely accurate. The “crows” who root through our garbage bins are not all the same. Like most groups, they have their own stories and some them are remarkable.

Living rough

No one has an exact number of homeless on Victoria’s streets. These folks are transient and a lot have become adept at making themselves invisible, so it’s hard to pin down a number. Still, the estimates are that well over 1,500 people live “rough” (without a roof). Many more “couch surf” (find accommodation through the charity of others) or are housed in unstable and often unsafe quarters.

In addition, many more people are in danger of joining their ranks. Earning minimum wage in B.C. can make a person about $1,500/month. According to the Coalition to End Homelessness, if a person is spending over 50 per cent of his or her wage on housing, he/she is at serious risk. Illness, accidents or any of a plethora of miscues in life can put people on the street. At that point, those discarded bottles and cans look pretty inviting.

World fell apart

Ron Bough is one of those people. At 51, Ron has been on the street for over a decade. He has two years of university education in mathematics and was working as an eyeglass technician in a local mall when his world fell apart. He began to suffer from severe depression, then lost his girlfriend and his job. In 1999, his landlord evicted him and, too proud to look to his family, he took to the streets. Now he sleeps in the woods off the Galloping Goose trail.

“Except when it rains, then I sleep under the bridge,” he says. “I have a tarp, but I can’t handle the sound of rain over my head.”

Despite chronic depression, Ron works hard to survive. He rides a reclaimed bike some 30 to 40 kilometres a day on a regular route of dumpsters and garbage cans. That nets him $20 to $30; enough to keep him going.

“I do this to eat, man,” he says.

He’s also saving up to buy a used guitar. He likes music, but his guitar was taken from him by a bunch of kids. “I got almost fifty bucks now,” he says. “Pretty soon I can buy some music.”

I ask if he ever sees himself rejoining mainstream society. “I’d like to,” he says. “I’d really like to want to want it enough to do it. I just don’t.”

Mental health issues form a backdrop for a lot of the homeless binners, as do substance and alcohol abuse.

Mental health

Patrice is one of those in that latter category. He’s 50 and came from Quebec over three years ago.

“Can you tell?” he asks in his heaviest francophone accent. “I come here for the weather.” He laughs. “It’s too cold for my bones at home.”

Patrice lives in Beacon Hill Park where he camps in a wooded area near the bandstand. He pushes his shopping cart on a regular route and manages to make $10 to $15 a day.

“There’s lots of food around if you know where to go,” he explains. “But I like drinking a bit and the bottles keep me in booze. I recycle those bottles, too.”

“You know this one time?” He laughs again and his laughter is infectious. “I’m at my place drinking and this other fellah, he comes up to me, says can he have my bottle when I’m done.” He shakes with laughter at the memory. “I think maybe he was a little crazy.”

Work hard for the money

Jason Ibiens drinks a bit, too. He’s 40 and has lived on the street since he split with his wife a decade ago. “Sure, there’re a lot of guys who drink or use drugs on the street.” He shrugs. “So what? It’s my money and I work hard to get it. You try walking all day to get bottles, man.”

Rob Caunter, a Clean Team supervisor working with the Downtown Victoria Business Association understands.

“If I find bottles or cans in the garbage or the street, I just leave them on the rim of the cans for the guys to pick up,” he explains. “It’s better than having them root through the garbage and, anyway, that way the bottles get recycled.”

When I ask if he worries about what the binners do with the money, he just shrugs. “None of my business.”

Then there’s Mike Joss, owner of Podium Sport Bar. He doesn’t like the idea of homeless people rooting through his dumpster for bottles.

“It made a bit of a mess and anyway, it’s not healthy for them,” he says. Mike decided to be proactive and directed his staff to set aside juice bottles and tetra packs that were too time consuming to recycle and put them out on the curb.

“There’s this one lady who comes and gets them pretty regularly,” he says. “If I’m late putting them out, she’ll wait by the door. It’s kind of like recycling.”

Recycling with a twist

I track down one of the people who collects Mike’s bottles. Her name is Marsie Chu. Marsie is 68 and, unlike most binners, isn’t homeless. She lives with her sister and passes along money earned from the recyclables to a relative who runs a local restaurant. The deal is that he’ll give a coffee and a sandwich to people who can’t afford it.

“People throw away money,” she says, gesturing at the bag of bottles. “It’s no good. Some people have no money, so I help them.”

And Marsie isn’t the only binner with a heart.

When Ruban (he won’t give his last name because he doesn’t want any “notoriety”) lost his job at BC Forest Products in 1989, he decided to retire. He played golf, went fishing and did what most retirees dream of doing.

Still, it bothered him that his limited budget didn’t allow him to donate to his long time charity, a camp for handicapped kids here on the Island. That’s when he started collecting bottles and cans. He cashes them in and sends the money to the camp.

He’s been doing that now for over 20 years. At 77, he enjoys breakfast with his wife of 59 years, and then leaves to do his tour of dumpsters to earn about $20 to $30 a day. All of it gets sent to his charity.

When I ask about the other binners he’s met during his years of salvaging cans, he shakes his head. “Some are really good people. Some aren’t. They all have their reasons for what they’re doing.”

True enough. But then, that’s true of all of us. M