Since he lost his job working security in Las Vegas last year, Lansing Beard, a 53-year-old army veteran, has slept on a mattress on the side of the road near the corner of Genesee Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.
Starting at 6 a.m. every morning, Beard pulls his cart through the streets of West Hollywood, salvaging bottles and cans from trash and recycling bins. By noon, when the cart weighs 300 pounds, he redeems his bounty, then starts all over again in the afternoon. When the redemption center closes at 5 p.m., he might have $60 to show for 11 hours of work.
“I never thought I’d be doing this this long,” Beard said. “When I left Vegas, I thought I’d be here six months tops. That’s the thing about being homeless — time just slips away from you so easily, you don’t even notice it. One minute, you’ve been on the streets a month, the next minute, it’s been a year.”
Beard supported himself the same way from 1998 to 2004, when he was last homeless. Back then, he said maybe 20 people supported themselves recycling in West Hollywood. Now, at least 50 people make a living scavenging just in the area of the city that Beard works — between Crescent Heights Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.
But after years of resident complaints, the City of West Hollywood is drafting an ordinance that would make it easier to cite, arrest and prosecute people who go through city trash and recycling bins.
Lauren Meister, president of the West Hollywood West Residents Association, outlined the concerns many residents have voiced about scavenging.
“First of all, it’s a little scary, because sometimes people come at five-thirty in the morning,” Meister said. “There’s the possibility of identity theft. Then, it’s a mess. I’ve gotten complaints of people going through the regular trash, not just the recycling, and opening up the bags, so trash ends up all over the street. I’ve seen people going up driveways and behind people’s gates to get trash. What’s to stop them from breaking into somebody’s house? It’s a good ordinance for public safety and public health.”
Beard is sympathetic to residents’ concerns.
“I can see her perspective,” Beard said. “You’re back there, you’re making all this noise, leaving a mess. A lot of people do that. But for the person who’s doing it, it’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t have any money. I’m just doing this to survive.’”
Last Thursday morning, he tried to keep quiet, as he went through bins in the early morning.
“I like this cart because it’s one of the quieter ones, sometimes you hear them and they’re all rickety,” Beard said. “I try to be quiet, especially at this place. A couple times, one of the women who lives here has asked me to come back later. But if you come back later, everything is gone.”
Beard pulled his cart up a driveway, setting it beside the dumpster in the parking lot behind an apartment complex. One by one, he opened the lids of the recycling bins, reached in to retrieve any plastic bottles or cans, deposited them in his cart, and shut the lids again, careful to leave everything how he found it.
He propped opened the lid to the dumpster with a long stick, then used another stick with a hook on the end to retrieve a trash bag. He untied the bag, removed a few cans, and retied it when he was done.
“Some people just climb into the dumpsters, I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “A lot of them rip the bags open and leave a mess, too. I try to retie them, but sometimes I need the bags, so I have to empty them and take them.”
As he turned the cart back onto the road, a man on the far side of the street pointed to a small pile of cans at the bottom of a driveway for Beard to collect.
“A lot of stuff we do depends on compassion of people, people giving you stuff,” Beard said. “At the same time, yesterday I had a woman screaming at me, saying she was going to call the police, even though it wasn’t her property. I got angry for a second, but then I just walked away. She’s a resident, it’s her right.”
Currently, scavenging exists in a kind of legal gray area. Although it is illegal to go through city trash and recycling containers, it’s unclear what authority the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department has to enforce that law. Lt. Lujuanda Haselrig explained that unless there is a victim, deputies cannot cite people they see scavenging for misdemeanors. They simply warn them verbally and send them on their way.
City Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, who sponsored a motion in May to ban scavenging, would like to change that enforcement policy.
“This is a quality-of-life issue,” Prang said. “It’s important to prevent identity theft, as well as for public health and public safety. We asked the city attorney to see what authority we currently have to combat scavenging. The Sheriff’s Department has a couple of specific enforcement teams whose whole job is to address quality-of-life issues, so if we want to focus on jaywalking or pooper scoopers one week, they can do that. Before we tell them to focus on scavenging, we want to make sure we have all the legal authority we need to take appropriate action.”
Cities around California have taken similar measures to curb scavenging. The City of Redondo Beach, for example, has a full-time city employee who drives around looking for people going through recycling bins and issuing citations.
Twice, Beard has been issued citations for having a shopping cart on the street, both of which turned into warrants when he was unable to pay the fines, which in turn led to nights in jail. But in both cases, when he was released, he resumed scavenging for recyclables.
“When I first got on the streets, I made a vow to God that I would not drink alcohol until I was off the streets, and I’ve pretty much kept that,” he said. “If you drink, you’re trapped. I try not to spend more than five dollars a day, just for food.”
Beard acknowledges the prevalence of alcoholism and crystal meth addiction among people who scavenge. He was once robbed by a man named Shaw, who was an alcoholic. Shaw was later killed, and Beard keeps a knife on himself for protection.
Still, Beard doesn’t like the idea of going to a homeless shelter. He went once, but only stayed several days. He said he thinks he can make more recycling than getting general relief, and he prefers to support himself.
“I’ve always been an independent person,” he said. “I joined the service when I was eighteen. It’s not in my character to ask anyone for help. I’ve never been one to panhandle. I would much rather do this, but I don’t want to do it very much longer. I want to get myself a real job as soon as possible, but of course we’ve got the worst economy in years.”
Kerry Morrison, director of the Hollywood Business Improvement District, conducted a registry of all the homeless people in Hollywood several months ago. She said Beard’s attitude is common among people who support themselves recycling.
“I was struck that 30 percent of the people we surveyed said they recycled for a living,” Morrison said. “They were proud that they were doing that and not just panhandling.”
Still, Rodolfo Salinas, director of community outreach for People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), which contracts with the City of West Hollywood to provide services for the homeless, said it’s important that local governments not allow people to use recycling to feed alcohol and drug addictions.
“I hope to see some groups and elected officials truly assume some level of responsibility for homelessness, which is one of the worst things going on in L.A. County,” Salinas said. “The fact is that in this economic climate, people apply themselves to recycling with the same effort you do at work. But the city has a responsibility to police itself carefully, so people aren’t using recycling to advance their addictions. We see patterns where recycling centers are located within a quarter-mile of liquor stores, and people are recycling just enough to get themselves a pint of vodka.”
Beard doesn’t want to recycle for a living. For the time being, he doesn’t know what else to do, though. He said he’s trying to save up money, spending no more than $5 to $10 per day.
Besides food, Beard’s main expenses are movies — he goes up to a theatre in North Hollywood. He’s also written several screenplays.
“It’s Hollywood, everyone has a screenplay,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Well, I’m recycling right now, but what I really want to do is direct.’”
Realistically, though, his goal is to find another security job. Every few weeks, he takes the bus back to Las Vegas to look for work, but so far he hasn’t been able to find anything. His real dream, he said, is to buy a house for his ex-girlfriend, who kicked him out when he lost his job.
“In five years, I hope I’m going to be back in Vegas, working two jobs, hopefully paying off a mortgage,” Beard said. “Hopefully living with my girlfriend. I’m still in love with her, even though she was kind of my undoing. I should probably let her go, but I just can’t.”
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