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Running On Empties

The five-cent deposit on empty bottles and cans doesn't sound like

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Daylight means opportunity.

And opportunity at the Safeway bottle return room on SW 11th smells like fermentation... a sour beer. The room is closet-sized with no air conditioning. It has a grimy floor that sticks like flypaper. Large beige "reverse vending" machines, which scan, compact, and sort empty beverage containers (also known as empties), churn noisily in a uniform fashion. When fed, the can and bottle machines go crunch and the glass machine goes tinkle. Next to them sits a wire cart heaped with wet plastic bags.

It's places like this where so many Portlanders drop off empty Cokes and Buds in return for that all-important five-cent deposit. And in two years, they'll be dropping off empty bottles of Evian and Aquafina, too, despite the fervent protests of Oregon's grocery lobby.

•••

Marcus Rogers, 50, has just finished unloading a cartful of bottles and cans at the Safeway when I approach him. He pockets a cash redemption ticket as he walks out. Rogers looks as if he's trying to go incognito: Large wraparound sunglasses hide his eyes and flushed white skin. A wispy brown ponytail is tucked underneath a tattered blue-and-red cap.

"This is how I make money—cans and bottles," he says, gesturing to the room behind him.

Rogers is a native Portlander. He's also homeless, and has spent the past few years trying to kick a heroin addiction and get his life on track. Rogers has worked hard to find a way off the streets—he might receive a housing voucher from the nonprofit homeless advocacy group JOIN if he's lucky.

In the meantime, he's collecting cans and bottles.

"Getting cans and bottles is help, ya know?" he says. "At least I'm not one of the people going around stealing stuff. It's an honest living, in a way."

•••

An unusual outcome of Oregon's landmark recycling bill was the creation of a shadow labor force: homeless people who spend hours every day gathering and returning empties.

These homeless collectors stand to benefit from the recent bottle bill expansion, which will make bottled water a redeemable beverage like soda and beer. According to Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, Oregonians bought nearly 200 million bottles of water in 2005. The DEQ predicts that number will be even higher in the future. When the new provisions go into effect in 2009, those bottles become returnable, giving these collectors more chances to earn cash. Not that they care. For most, this is a job they say they don't want for one more day—much less two more years.

Rogers agrees to let me follow him while he goes on another container run, but we make a quick detour inside Safeway to redeem his ticket.

At the main entrance, Rogers leaves his shopping cart with a teenage Safeway employee selling hot dogs out front. The teenager glances at the cart filled with Rogers' belongings—a yellowed airplane novel, a dirty red duffel bag, a neon green bottle of fluid, garbage bags—and says nothing.

Inside, a cashier eyes Rogers warily as he approaches. If he sees her staring, he doesn't acknowledge it.

"Ready?" she asks.

"Yeah," he replies, handing her his ticket. "How are you?"

"Good," she says coldly, handing him $1.20 in cash. "See ya."

•••

Grocery stores aren't huge fans of the Oregon bottle bill, which requires them to accept bottle returns regardless of whether they are a mom-and-pop convenience store or a conventional grocery store. If they sell a drink, they must redeem it. John Fletcher, president of CRINC (Container Recovery, Inc.) and the collective that picks up empties for distributors, says container recycling is a classic "80/20 business," which means that a few stores do most of the business. In this case, the grocery stores closest to the most people will get the most returns and deal with the largest loads, he says. Each place has to store and sort them using their available facilities and labor, and there are no additional benefits from handling a larger load and its associated health risks. It's why the Northwest Grocery Association (NWGA), a group representing the grocery industry, lobbied against the bill's expansion during this year's state legislative session.

Although homeless collectors aren't a major concern, NWGA President Joe Gilliam says grocery stores do still have some minor issues with them. Some use shopping carts to carry empties. Gilliam says the shopping carts, which cost about $200 each, are usually taken from grocery stores and require replacements. Homeless collectors also bring in empties taken from curbside recycling bins. He says some even run routes that correspond with curbside recycling pick-up days in various neighborhoods. There are no statistics available that confirm either claim, but interviews with homeless collectors suggest that both things are indeed done to some extent.

•••

We grab Rogers' cart on the way out and head north on SW 10th. On the way, he relays some facts about collecting.

Most people go to Fred Meyer because its return facilities are larger. (He goes to Safeway because it's closer.) Safeway won't take Freddy-brand drinks; Fred Meyer won't take Safeway's. You can make about $5 on the average sunny day. Gloomy days mean less money—fewer pedestrians discarding containers. Collecting is more reliable than panhandling, and besides... collecting keeps you on the go.

"I was never much one to sit in a single place," he says. "I always gotta be moving around."

A luxury SUV almost runs into Rogers as we cross a street, stopping just in time. We scurry to the other side.

"Makes me feel better about myself," he continues.

•••

Like any other worker, homeless can-and-bottle collectors have different approaches. Some ride bikes, stowing overflowing garbage bags in a wire basket. Others walk the streets with a grocery cart. And anyone who's used public transportation has probably seen someone carrying a grocery bag filled with cans.

Melvin Bond, a 47-year old homeless man with a Memphis drawl, says the best place to find containers is grocery store bottle-return rooms. People often leave carts full of bottles and cans that can't be redeemed at their current location but may be redeemable elsewhere.

Another man with a salt-and-pepper beard said searching through trash at apartment buildings offered better yields than municipal trashcans. He recommended garbage bags as carriers, saying that shopping carts attract trouble from police. (The man, who was found at Couch Park, refused to give his name and age for the article. He claimed that his info was meaningless because "I don't exist anymore." He also talked at length about how to perform a disturbingly specific murder/suicide in the Bay Area.)

Of the interviewees, all shared one common thought: No one wants this job.

•••

Rogers wobbles as he walks, dragging one leg behind the other, toward a municipal trashcan by Taylor Street. He heaves the lid off. It makes a dull thud when it hits the ground. A sweet stench, like ammonia, rises up as he paws through the waste. A Portland Streetcar, seats filled, stops next to him when his arm is shoulder-deep in the trashcan. They gawk. The streetcar leaves just as he finishes. He's empty-handed.

"There's probably one can in every 10 trashcans I try," Rogers says as he places the lid back on the trashcan. We move on to Yamhill. Rogers starts rummaging through trashcans there, moving in tandem with the eastbound MAX line and sharing stories in between each stop.

He has family: a sister and father in Ashland. He doesn't want to move in with either one.

He's tried to learn the metalworking trades three times at the Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus. "Anything to do with metal, I've done it," he says.

He's done a lot of different work in his life. He's worked on yards and computers, at farms and restaurants, with specialized machines and with handheld equipment.

And now he's picking through garbage. He finally finds two empty bottles: Sunkist and Coke.

•••

For the homeless, there are different challenges finding work depending on the person, says Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern, a group that offers outreach services to Portland's homeless and impoverished. Harris says some go back to work quickly, while others need rehab or other assistance before they can rejoin the workforce.

Long-time homeless have an especially hard time finding work, he says. They lack recent employment—which hurts their job skills and their desirability to employers—and resources as simple as a clean pair of clothes. Some have criminal backgrounds or health issues that limit their job opportunities. He says it's not a question of motivation—homeless just face different challenges.

"Homeless have more issues to deal with than everybody else," he says. "Being out of work has a huge impact on how people see themselves... when you're jobless, the world looks pretty bleak."

•••

Rogers suddenly stops in front of Nordstrom and lights a smashed cigarette from his depleted pack of smokes. He holds the cigarette loosely in dirt-crusted fingernails as he takes his first drag. He doesn't speak until he finishes.

"I'll be glad to get off the street," he says. "I'm tired of it. I'm getting too old to live on the streets."

And then he talks about heroin. The addiction that drove him to the street began in 1997, he says. A car accident that year left him with a broken hip. The doctors put a screw in his hip to repair the damage, but the pain was so bad that nothing seemed to help. Except heroin.

He had his hip fully replaced in 2000. There was no more pain in his hip, but by then it was too late—he was addicted. Heroin drained his money and sent him to jail. There, he'd have to go cold turkey—but after being released, the craving for heroin was so powerful he'd run straight back. He kept ending up back in jail. Finally, a couple months ago, he managed to get on methadone treatment. He's been on it for about a month. It's been going really well, he says.

Now he is wandering the streets, scavenging for cans, living off food stamps, and wearing found clothes.

•••

Rogers finishes the cigarette, stares off into the distance and sighs.

"I'm kind of tired," he says. "I think I'm done for now. It's getting kind of late to do this, anyway."

I agree. It's been about two hours and he doesn't seem to have anything else to tell me. He says as much. We've found five empties—worth 25 cents—since I've been with him. It's time to leave. I head home and he heads the other direction.

I go back downtown for dinner two hours later. While biking, I see Rogers walking down Yamhill with his cart. He doesn't see me. From a distance, I watch as he wheels his cart over to the curb. Then he hobbles over to a nearby trashcan, rips off the lid and reaches in.

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