New York's homeless to feel brunt of mayor's budget cuts

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The Independent US

Ian Thomas was up all Friday night making the rounds of his favourite bars and clubs in and around Times Square. He did not rest until dawn. But far from carousing, Mr Thomas was hard at work, collecting all the empty bottles and cans he could see and piling them into his trusty shopping cart.

If you know Manhattan, you have seen them. They are an army of mostly homeless souls, patrolling the pavements night and day looking for empties wherever they can find them. Because every can and bottle is worth five cents when turned in for recycling, it earns them something close to a living.

But now Michael Bloomberg, the new mayor, has plans to suspend all recycling of metal and glass in the city for at least 18 months, because at $270 (£190) a ton it is too expensive. And he would also end the system of paying out five cents for returned bottles and cans.

At 6am yesterday, Mr Thomas could be found pushing his heavily loaded cart to the corner of 11th Avenue and 52nd Street. That is the address of We Can, a charity that has acted as a redemption centre for bottles and cans for a decade. When he had sorted them, he had 43 cardboard boxes of bottles with him, his entire haul from Friday night.

With 12 bottles in a box, he had earned $25.80. That income would be interrupted if Mr Bloomberg has his way. New York, which faces a budget deficit of about $4bn, stands to become the first large US city to go into reverse gear on recycling. Mayor Bloomberg says recycling will resume for metals and glass only when an improved recycling programme is devised.

Searching for a source of new cash to fund his hoped-for improvements, the mayor settled on the five-cents deposit programme. That nickel would remain factored into the cost of every bottle and can of drink sold, but instead of the money being returnable to consumers it would go to the city in the form of a tax.

Homeless groups are appalled. Though there may be few occupations more humble, the scavenging of empties from the city's streets has provided an unintended safety net for hundreds of the city's homeless and helpless.

Nowhere is the worry more evident than at We Can and several other redemption centres scattered through the city. "Some use the money to supplement social security cheques and welfare," said Joe Harris, a manager at We Can who was overseeing those bringing in their empties to the 11th Avenue store yesterday. "A lot of them wouldn't be able to eat without the nickels they accumulate day after day."

Monday is busy at We Can, because many of the men – there are a few women too – are bringing in their harvest from the weekend. Everything has to be sorted and arranged in cardboard boxes.

Only when they have everything straight can they go inside to pick up a voucher that states the worth of the haul. It can be exchanged for cash at another office a few blocks away.

Mr Thomas, whose grizzled face under a hood makes him look older than his 44 years, concentrates on getting bottles and only from the bars and clubs of midtown. This requires an amount of discipline. If Mr Thomas doesn't get to to his bar or disco at an appointed time, he knows someone else will jump in and take the bottles ahead of him.

Because he has sporadic work also as a messenger, Mr Thomas might survive Mr Bloomberg's proposal. But he looks at his friends as they busily separate their bottles from the cans and worries out loud for them.

"This is the only money they get and if they are made to stop they are going to have to find money from other sources and maybe illegal sources," he said. "They have to do something to get money."

Something else might happen if the redeemers – they prefer that name over the word scavengers – are deprived of their trade. The streets of New York might begin to look a little different.

Roughly 1.64 billion redeemable bottles and cans are sold in the city every year, yet you almost never seem them empty in gutters or being pushed down pavements by the wind. Because the redeemers have picked them up.

"The streets are immaculate thanks to these people," Mr Harris said. "They keep the streets of New York clean, they really do. Even if you wanted to find an empty bottle or can around here, you wouldn't be able to find one".

Residents of the city see the redeemers, but they may not look at them. They look smelly and unwholesome and their stolen supermarket carts are festooned with dustbin liners bursting with cans. But they might miss them if they were taken off the streets and the litter returned.

But it is the fate of people such as Mr Thomas that is of the greatest concern. "It's more than a nickel, it's more than people rooting through the garbage," Guy Polhemus, the founder of We Can, said. "For some people it's the last vestige of their autonomy."

Mr Bloomberg is aware of what the proposal would do these homeless. But it is not enough to stop him. "If we're going to help the homeless, there are better ways than having them go through the garbage, thank you very much," he said.