Empty Dreams


For some of the estimated 36,900 homeless people in New York City, empty cans and bottles are better than no cans and bottles at all. Recycling empties is one of the most reliable ways for the homeless and poor to make money in a place that ranks sixth in the latest report on America’s meanest cities. (Watch video: ‘Canned Analogy’)

You may not be able to make a living, but at least you’re surviving. However, even that work as “canners,” like other odd jobs like day labor work such as painting, is constantly threatened.

“Illegal to Be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States,” the report issued last month by the National Coalition for the Homeless, points out the penalties homeless people face for carrying out such “life-sustaining activities” in public spaces.

Advocates for the homeless complain that New York enforces “quality-of-life” laws “selectively,” punishing the poor and homeless for activities, like gathering empty cans, that others are allowed to do. The exact numbers of people arrested or cited for such things as loitering or disorderly conduct isn’t known, despite advocates’ formal request to the NYPD a year ago for such data.

Canners who aren’t arrested can make $10 on a good day. But most days aren’t good if residents complain about their presence, leading to the “quality-of-life” tickets and arrests. And merchants who sell beverages often turn canners away or set unreasonable limits on how many cans and bottles they’ll accept—despite a state law requiring beverage sellers to accept empties, pay refunds, and accept certain numbers of cans if asked to.

Those who aren’t canners don’t have to worry about that. They have enough trouble from other laws. For example, day laborers waiting on the corner of Bedford and Atlantic avenues in North Crown Heights, to name just one of many places, are continually hassled. Marcus, a 27-year-old activist, says up to 20 day laborers a day get ticketed at Bedford and Atlantic for loitering, disorderly conduct, or trespassing.

“Working as an organizer, I’ve been ticketed more than once,” he says. “The second time I was there, a police car came and we had to show ID. I was with a friend. My friend was angry and protested having to show an ID. He was arrested.”

Jean Rice, an official at Picture the Homeless, adds, “I have a couple of quality-of-life warrants myself. Life-sustaining activities in public spaces are activities that people that are not homeless enjoy with impunity.”

By the way, New York was rated the third-meanest city last year and now is only the sixth-meanest. (This year’s three meanest are Little Rock, Atlanta, and Cincinnati.)

But Lynn Lewis, co-director of Picture the Homeless, a nonprofit membership organization led by the homeless, cautions, “It doesn’t mean that New York is less mean.”