Redeeming soda cans and homeless in N.Y.C.
GUY POLHEMUS sits and writes ``checks'' in an empty West Side lot amid empty cans, bottles, and a handful of mostly homeless men. ``Have you talked to the brothers?'' he asks a visitor, nodding at two men culling through a bag of empties. George, warmly dressed in a bumblebee black and yellow sweater he found, looks up politely while he continues to go through the bag.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``We were Guy's first big customers,'' George says, adding that he and his brother Michael together make up to $60 a day picking up discarded cans and bottles. When they finish adding up their cans, Mr. Polhemus jots down their earnings on a ``check.'' The brothers then take it to a local check cashing shop where Polhemus has opened an account for his project, We Can.
In the subculture of New York City's street people, Polhemus, a soft-spoken free-lance writer and voice-over man, is considered something of a friend and a hero. His simple idea - a bottle redemption center in Manhattan that actually welcomes people with bags full of tossed out soda and beer cans - makes eminent sense to the men and women whose main source of income comes from the trash they sift every day.
But Polhemus, who is passionate about his project and the people he calls redeemers, is worried about We Can's future. Running a redemption center where anyone can return empties for nickels, in compliance with the New York State bottle bill, is not that simple.
Starting on a shoestring of $2,000, Polhemus was overwhelmed by the initial response to the opening of his redemption center on West 43rd Street. He knew redeemers ran into difficulties returning the empties; he got the idea for We Can after talking to homeless people in a church soup kitchen. They told of store owners who set limits on the number of cans returned, who take empties only at certain hours, and who chase out redeemers with too many returnables.
And, like his friends on the streets, Polhemus finds he gets the runaround, too. Checks are on the way from Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola distributors, but he can't get rid of his Budweisers. The beer distributorships continue to thwart Polhemus's efforts to return the more than 14,000 cans he has taken in since he opened his center Oct. 14.
By most accounts, the bottle bill in New York has been a success. Framed as an anti-litter measure, it is credited with reducing solid waste by 8 percent, says R.W. Groneman of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. He says that 80 percent of all returnable cans and bottles are redeemed by the public.
For the redeemers at We Can's lot, the bill has also been good news. Regis Moore, a cheerful man with an amazingly decorated shopping cart, says he can live on the average $24 a day he makes. ``Who eats chicken every day?'' he asks. His cart has broomsticks in each corner decorated with dolls and stuffed toys. A bear wears sunglasses and a string tie.
Larry is at We Can for the first time. A Vietnam veteran, he is dressed in a suit and tie borrowed from the shelter where he is staying. He's going to an interview for a computer training school. He turns to Jack Moore, a homeless man who decided to stay and help Polhemus run We Can. ``Do you take plastic bottles?''
A few feet away, Polhemus sighs. He doesn't like to turn his redeemers down.
``If I had the money, I would take everything, and fight it out from here.''