Homeless in Vancouver: A murder of crows and a mess of Dumpsters

Near the end of my morning trek to get breakfast, I stopped to watch some seagulls and crows attending to their morning buffet at an overflowing restaurant Dumpster in the 1400 block of the lane on the south side of West Broadway.

The birds weren’t trying to make a mess and I had to say they were surprisingly well-mannered in the way they patiently sat on the overhead wires waiting their turn. There was more than enough to go around.

On the trail of a messy Dumpster diver

Birds were hardly to blame for the mess in the five previous blocks of alley I had traveled through from Oak Street. Each block was fairly strewn with garbage from Dumpsters and various plastic recyclables pulled from Container blue bins.

I could blame it on the “night crew”—binners and Dumpster divers who prowl the lanes throughout the night—but I generally don’t assume it’s anyone who makes their living off other people’s garbage.

Some Dumpster divers are messy pigs who don’t give a damn, but they’re almost always amateurs. A serious Dumpster diver—one who sees themselves as making a living that way—has a professional mindset about not making a mess of their workplace; it’s bad for business.

Experience tells me that when I seen such a consistent mess from one end of an alley to the other, it has usually been the singular responsibility of—how can I put it gently—one lone CRAZY PERSON who’s been digging through the entrails of garbage looking for God or something.

I hate seeing the mess for all sorts of reasons, not the least that it gives buildings one more reason to consider locking away their Dumpsters and recycling.

The night shift

The nighttime is principally Dumpster diving time, particularly near the end of a month and especially near the end of a summer month.

The overnight hours afford Dumpster divers the uninterrupted quality time they need to really dig for the things some renters are beginning to throw out ahead of month-end moves.

There are also always a small number of binners who see the nighttime as time when they can have the alleys to themselves. The advantages are less competition and this time of year it’s comfortably warm all night, with no blazing sun. But there are generally less returnable containers to find so the trick is to look all night across a very large area.

Almost all the overnight binners and Dumpster divers I know get their staying power from crystal methamphetamine.

The stimulant, or neurotoxin—depending which end of the brain scan you’re on—doesn’t just keep you awake. It allows you to focus on the task at hand—really focus.

That unnatural focus can help blind Dumpster divers and binners to the mess they make.

I knew one fellow who was, in his own mind at least, one of the cleanest Dumpster divers around. I watched him become an absolute snow blower when he Dumpster dived under the influence of crystal meth. Even after he cleaned up to his satisfaction, there would still be a fine spray of garbage surrounding the Dumpster.

Bit by bit, every Dumpster in his four favourite blocks of alley locked up tight and stayed that way for two years until long after he’d given up the area.

It rarely pays to mess with a mess

This morning I just rode through and past the strewn garbage, shaking my head.

It’s not my job and I haven’t the time to clean up all the messes I see in the back alleys.

To be blunt, I don’t even like to be seen near them because—and all binners have experienced this—if a building manager sees me (a binner) near garbage on the ground, I must be the one who put it there. And a building manager will hold that misapprehension against me forever.

My priorities for clean binning

  • Never make any mess of my own.
  • Clean up at buildings I like—where I know people and/or where I get lots of returnable containers.
  • Clean up broken glass that could represent a hazard to my bike tires as well as to people and dogs.
  • Put mis-sorted recyclables in their proper bin when it’s easy to do so.
  • If I’ve parked my bike and a garbage bin is open, I may pick up stray trash around the recycling bins.
  • Help residents who are picking up garbage without wearing gloves (I’m always wearing gloves).
  • If time allows, offer to help residents cut down their cardboard.

The rule of lids

Some binners make a perverse point of leaving the lid open of every Container recycling bin they check. I don’t do this. I don’t like Container bins that are full of rain water, but mostly I want them closed because building managers prefer them that way.

Comparing notes with other binner who also close lids, I find that we almost all follow the same rules.

  • Close any lids we open.
  • Close the lids of any bins where we find containers.
  • Close any open lids at buildings we like.
  • Bins where we get nothing can stay as we found them.

A bored binner isn’t always a bad thing

Even when I’m not looking for returnable containers, I’m inclined to travel from point A to point B in Fairview using whatever line takes me through the back alleys—in case I find something amazing and just because.

If I’m not binning, I will stop as I see fit and address any shortcoming I find (I know several Fairview street people who do the same). My random acts of fixing have included:

  • Filling potholes with pea gravel.
  • Gluing together and restoring styrene plastic parking signs that cars hit.
  • Tightening the hinges screws on the wooden gates I regularly open.
  • Replacing or repairing the spring mechanisms on said gates.

And I empty out any returnable water bottles onto the shaded part of plants.

I once spent something like 30 minutes one lazy afternoon disassembling a large anodized aluminum gate leaf that had inexplicably been pushed closed past its jamb. I rehung it on the proper side of the jamb without a soul interrupting me.

This was the gate for a building’s garbage enclose. The management had finally sprung to replace the wooden fencing with metal and they didn’t choose to lock the enclosure even though the wear and tear of 40 binners a day opening (and sometimes closing) the wooden gate had certainly hastened its demise.

I will always like that building even though I’ve never spoken to any one who manages it or lives there and in spite of the fact I rarely find returnable containers there. I appreciate them giving me the opportunity to look.

Everybody remembers the bad apple

The locking of the Dumpsters and enclosing of recycling is like a slow wave pushed along by each building deciding enough is enough.

Fairview’s binners and Dumpster divers can be as tidy and clean as we like. We can quietly pitch in to look after the neighbourhood, but in the long run I think we’re just barely putting off the inevitable.

The building owners in Fairview are, slowly, each in their turn, judging the cost of gating their garbage cheap if it will forever eliminate the illegal dumping in apartment Dumpsters and the kind of slime trail I dodged on my way to breakfast this morning

Can’t say I blame them. I don’t like the mess any more than they do. 

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