NEW YORK — On a vacant lot in Manhattan's gritty Hell's Kitchen, there is a new kind of redemption for the homeless: cash "with dignity" for the returnable cans they scavenge on the street.
"It's direct help that these people need and want. And it's working," said Guy Polhemus, founder of the struggling service, called We Can. In fact, he said, "It's working too well."
In his first six weeks, Polhemus took in 70,000 cans, drawing scores of street people who in the past have had to force their returns on reluctant corner shopkeepers and supermarket managers.
Coming In Too Fast
But its very success is threatening the effort. The nickel-deposit cans are coming in faster than Polhemus can pass them on to distributors, who must reimburse him under the state's redeemable container law.
With expenses outrunning donations, Polhemus has had to reduce hours and refuse glass and plastic bottles. The Coalition for the Homeless, a private advocacy group, lent him $2,000 to get through one recent week.
The operation is barely afloat, said Polhemus, 32. "It's frustrating," he said in a recent interview. "This thing could really fly. I mean, there is a crying need for it, all over the city, and the need is just not being met."
Polhemus, who left a job writing advertising copy to run We Can, first saw the need when he worked Sundays as a volunteer at a West Side soup kitchen. "It really opened my eyes to the hearts these people have," he said. "Ninety percent of them are hard-working, meek, proud, trying to get back on their feet."
Helped by Nickels
Some of those living on the streets have been helped by the nickels they can earn under the state's 4-year-old bottle law. It requires stores to accept bottles and cans of the brands they sell, up to a maximum of 240 a day from each redeemer.
But in crowded city shops, "They don't. They can't," said Polhemus. "They'd fill up the store."
Moreover, some shopkeepers and their customers resent the presence of unkempt street people lined up to redeem containers. Some store managers harass redeemers; others simply ignore them.
We Can, said Polhemus, is an alternative--a place where the needy can cash in their collections "with dignity and without hassle."
He envisions a string of redemption centers across the city.
Makes $24 a Day
Regis Morre, 40, jobless and homeless, is one of those who line up mornings at We Can's rented trailer on 43rd Street. He said he makes an average of $24 in a seven-hour day. "It keeps me going," he said.
Others, such as brothers George and Michael Frado, said they can make $50 each in 18 hours.
Advocates for the homeless see scavenging as a testament to society's failure to provide for the poor, and yet they say it shows the effort many street people put in for the change to survive on.
"It infuriates me when you hear about how homeless people won't take a job," said Robert Hayes, counsel of the Coalition for the Homeless. "I defy any salaried person in this country to work harder for less return."
We Can's efforts, too, have been a struggle so far.
Expenses have been mounting: Polhemus pays a nearby check-cashing center 40 cents apiece to cash the payment checks he writes to redeemers. He pays three homeless men to help run the center. There are insurance bills, rent for an office, truck leasing and a weekly salary of $200 to $250 for himself.
Polhemus spends much of his time seeking donations from churches, community groups and restaurants to help pay the costs.
But each week's challenges, he said, pale in comparison to those faced by people who use his service. "There is a pride they have," he said, "in making their own way and not accepting a handout."