Stories of Recycling and Redemption on the Street

The incredible thing about these recyclers is that they are surviving in spite of immeasurable odds against them. Their stories are an invaluable asset—akin to living maps which illustrate the holes in our safety nets and the true beauty, dignity, and value of those who fell through them.

Hayok Kay pulls her shopping cart in Emeryville while collecting cans on the way to the recycling center. Chihiro Wimbush photo

by Zachary J. Stickney

 

I first met Hayok Kay — Miss Kay, as she likes to be called — near the Alliance Metals Recycling Center in West Oakland. She had just finished a day of recycling, and as I approached her she was leaning exhaustedly against her shopping cart, eating a piece of bread she had found.

What I’ll never forget about Miss Kay is that, in spite of her deplorable condition, she nevertheless had a certain air of dignity around her, and more obviously, a certain cuteness. Standing less than 5 feet tall, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tinier recycler in all of Oakland, and I challenge anyone to find a sweeter smile or laugh.

But for all her dignity and cuteness, her situation remains destitute. Nearing 60, Miss Kay’s life has been a history of impermanence. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, but left soon after to Japan before ending up in the Bay Area. Though she has had difficulty finding permanent housing (even in shelters) for years, recently her problems have come to a head.

Up until September 2012, she had been living in a homeless shelter in Richmond and commuting by bus to Oakland where she would complete her recycling routes. But near the end of September, she was kicked out due to alleged suicidal tendencies. Hayok had been caught hitting her head against the wall in her room.

Jason (at left) picks up a huge amount of recycled material on his hardworking travels through the East Bay. Amir Soltani photo

 

When asked why, her answers alternated between, “I don’t want to live here anymore,” and “I don’t want to live anymore,” prompting the managers of the shelter to remove her from the facility. They simply did not have the resources to deal with such devastation.

Since being kicked out, Miss Kay has alternated between staying with old friends, paying for a few nights’ stay in motel rooms, living in emergency shelters, or sleeping next to the Emeryville town hall. She has even spent a few nights in the hospital, both for her physical pain as well as her mental difficulties.

While staying in the motel rooms — a move funded by her meager General Assistance allotments and her left-over recycling income, and her meals provided by food stamps — Hayok barely moved. She had been so devastated by illness that it took everything she had even to get up and purchase food, let alone to trudge a shopping cart brimming with trash all over West Oakland.

As of this writing, she has been well enough to resume recycling, though any day now the chill of winter will doubtless leave her incapable of generating any income, yet again.

A group of recyclers at the Alliance Metals recycling center. From left to right, Landon Goodwin, Hayok Kay, Roslin Sanders and Jason Witt. Amir Soltani photo

 

I wish I could say that the severe hardships faced by Miss Kay are unusual, but a single day at one of the East Bay’s many walk-up recycling centers tells you a different story. Alliance Metals alone serves some 700 customers a day. While not all of these are homeless, many of them are, and those who are fortunate enough to have a home likely wouldn’t without the added income they receive from recycling. If any of these individuals were to get sick like Miss Kay, the loss of income could equate to a loss of everything they have ever worked for.

Another recycler, Jason Witt, knows all too well what that is like. To many around the Alliance Metals community, Jason is thought of as one of the kings of recycling. On a good day, you can see Jason pull a ton of trash to the recycling center — literally.

Hayok Kay rests her head on her cart in a park across the street from the recycling center. Fatigued and hurting, she gave way to exhaustion. Amir Soltani photo

 

It’s a surreal experience watching Jason carry his bounty down the street: a single man, hands calloused, pulling a mountain of trash on a creaking shopping cart, often with his beloved dog Monster at his side. Jason is one of the few able to take recycling to the extreme. His income wasn’t massive, but it was enough to rent a small home in West Oakland’s lower bottoms.

But after another bout of illness — including endocarditis (an inflammation of the inside of the heart) and various viruses from drug use — Jason too became unable to work, and he soon lost everything. He is currently in and out of hospital visits, living in a nook between a BART station and the highway.

But while the stories of Hayok, Jason, and countless other shopping-cart recyclers may seem bleak, the incredible thing about each of them is that they are not only surviving, but they are doing it creatively and productively, in spite of the immeasurable odds placed against them.

In doing so, their stories become an invaluable asset to society — something akin to living maps which illustrate the holes in our safety nets and the true beauty, dignity, and value of those who fell through them. They show us why we need to recognize and rectify these faults — and what we are set to lose if we do not.

Over the past four years, my colleagues Amir Soltani, Chihiro Wimbush and I have sought to illuminate these stories through the medium of film. Our forthcoming production, Redemption, documents the lives and trials of four shopping-cart recyclers — entrepreneurs who live on the East Bay’s river of trash.

Recently, the film has received funding from Sundance, Cal Humanities, the San Francisco Foundation, and others. Our goal in bringing this project to fruition is to reignite the poverty debate in the United States — and to reimagine how we define and address economic inequality, racial discrimination, public space, and our relationships with the poorest of the poor.

This powerful image of the battered, callused hands of Jason Witt speaks volumes about the difficulties inherent in his work gathering mountains of recycled material.

 

Far from being a story about a destitute underclass, Redemption celebrates the stories of four great Americans, and aims to challenge viewers to face their own prejudices and insecurities head on and to engage in dialogue to alleviate them.

I believe this film has this power because I have experienced it. In my role in the creation of Redemption, I have been forced to recognize the walls I had built within myself — the prejudices, the ignorance, and the apathy which have prevented me from recognizing and connecting with the poor.

I have learned things about poverty and the people who experience it that I had never even considered. Perhaps most importantly, I have made friendships with people I previously would have turned a blind eye to and walked past.

These people — my friends, your friends, these members of our community — require that we do more than pay lip-service to the idea of eliminating poverty.

It’s time to demand more not only from our government, our business, and our city officials, but also from ourselves, and to recognize and celebrate the connections and relationships between us all.

This process of opening up, of forgiving, and most importantly, of loving, is what redemption is all about.

Zachary Stickney is the associate producer of “Redemption.” He can be reached at redemptiondocumentary@gmail.com. To learn more about Redemption, visit the film’s website at www.redemptiondoc.org.

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