Opinion: Why some homeless people pick through garbage

David Heitz

Photo byJasmin Sessler/Unsplash

Just a few moments ago, I went to take my trash out. Once again, someone was frolicking in the dumpster, sorting through all the trash, and organizing it into three (no doubt stolen) shopping carts.

I live at Fusion Studios, a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless property. Most of the people who live here get food stamps. Even the ones who sell their stamps for drug money can get food from an on-site food pantry. So, nobody is dumpster diving for food.

I have forever been repulsed by the segment of the homeless community that enjoys playing with garbage. You see them pushing multiple shopping carts, often filled with things like empty cigarette boxes and plastic bags. Filthy clothes are another favorite, piles and piles of clothes.

I never have dumpster dived and never would. It’s gross. It’s unsanitary. And it’s often illegal if you’re doing it on private property.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

I get especially disgusted where I live because many of the residents bring the trash inside and leave it in carts in the hallway. Next thing you know, the hallway stinks and is full of flies.

So, I ask myself, why are some homeless people so obsessed with trash? I scoured the internet looking for answers. I suspected some folks may have a type of hoarding disorder.

The answers I found for why homeless people squander trash were eye opening. From a debate on Quora:

“You see a cart full of trash, I see a cart full of money,” wrote one dumpster diver. “In the U.S. and other countries, there is good money to be made in scrap metal. You start off collecting tin cans, squashing them, and taking them to a recycling center. That cart full of Coke cans has just given me $5, enough for a meal that night.”

Photo byUssama Azam

Writes another: “I might need some things for my camp. Well, a few bricks and a broken pallet or two and I've got a shelf unit. Some old plastic sheet gives me a secondary rain cover. If I've got a cart full of cardboard, you can bet yourself I'm insulating myself from the ground or putting it up against the walls of my tent to help keep out the cold wind.”

‘Hustling receipts’ and ‘teching out’

Still, my blood boils when I see people playing in the trash. Some of them no doubt “hustle receipts.” This is the practice of collecting receipts, then stealing the items on the receipts and returning them to the store for cash.

Photo byMike Walter/Unsplash

There’s a reason archaeologists study trash. Garbage tells you a lot about a person. Going through someone’s refuse, dumpster divers can learn a treasure trove of information that can lead to identity theft.

There are people who defend trash enthusiasts to the hilt. Some may be “teching out” according to one Quora poster. “Crystal meth users can obsess over objects that they want to build things out of. Tinkering with random metal and scraps is part of the high.”

I definitely saw people do that when I experienced homelessness. Many would get extremely high and repair stolen bicycles for resale. Others made elaborate art.

Doing their part to recycle

There are those who will say I am a bad person for being disgusted by people who ply the dumpsters. Wrote one Quora member, “Homeless people help immensely with recycling goods that would end up polluting the environment in landfills. Sometimes people survive this way, and it helps them heal from trauma. There is always more to the story than you can immediately see.”

Photo byEvgeny Karchevsky/Unsplash

I question whether the garbage that goes from dumpsters to shopping carts ends up in landfills. I used to see carts filled with trash dumped along the Platte River trail behind Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter. Bicycles also were stashed in the thick vegetation along the bluffs. Instead of going to the landfill, some carts full of trash end up in waterways.

Trash-filled shopping carts line hallways

The trash situation in my building got so bad for a while building management put up signs featuring Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. The fliers affirmed that getting rid of trash can be difficult for some people. One encouraged residents to reach out if they need help taking out the trash.

I can only imagine what some of the rooms in this building look like inside. There is no wonder there is a bed bug and roach infestation. I’m surrounded by people who like to play with trash.

I know this column might upset some people. But I can find no good reason to play in the trash. Be careful about everything you throw away. Chances are your trash cans will be rummaged through eventually.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO

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