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Santa Ana locks its trash cans

Have we become so hard-hearted that we deny the homeless even our trash?

June 20, 2009

In Santa Ana, the city has agreed to place locks on outdoor recycling bins for a dozen neighbors in the Wilshire Square district. The devices, as Times staff writer Tony Barboza reported, were designed to keep bears out of trash cans in Alaska, but there aren't any bears in Santa Ana. Nor are the locks intended to thwart native critters such as raccoons, opossums, ravens or coyotes.

Somewhere along the line, the city and the neighbors lost sight of the fact that the scavengers targeted by their locking-bin pilot program aren't animals at all but a much more vulnerable species -- homeless human beings, for whom discarded plastic and glass are a last-resort source of sustenance.

The locks are being tested at the request of residents who lobbied for city protection from the homeless, who were raiding their trash and recycling bins for items with refund value. To be sure, this kind of dumpster diving (or bin burgling) is a nuisance. Residents complain of frightening early morning encounters with homeless men near their driveways or of being awakened at night by barking dogs and the loud clanks of glass bottles.

What's more, bin burgling can have a small but real cost, which is why it's considered a crime in most cities. Santa Ana contracts with hauler Waste Management, which profits from the recyclables it collects. The "theft" of these items comes at the expense of the contractor rather than the city, but if the losses are significant, it could result in higher trash rates for residents. Waste Management is covering the expense of the new bins, which might be placed at homes in other parts of the city if the test is successful.

Despite the nuisances, in the grand scheme of things, it's hard to begrudge homeless men and women the pennies they're able to collect from discarded recyclables. For the homeowners who toss them away, the redemption value of containers isn't worth the inconvenience of hauling them to a collection center, yet to the desperately poor they can be a lifeline.

California has been particularly unkind to its homeless population, which swelled after the mid-1960s when the state ended most involuntary incarceration for the mentally ill. Homeless services have never come close to meeting the demand throughout the state, and the current government budget crisis is reducing services even as the recession causes the number of indigent people to soar.

A century or two from now, historians may look back at a society so hardhearted that it sends its misfits to live in the streets and then takes steps to ensure that they can't even live off its trash, and wonder at the primitiveness of 21st century man.

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