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How the Other Half Lives; On the Streets of Bakersfield 5: Trying the Walk


Fin currently lives in California's Central Valley.

for some - treasures

for some - treasures


This really started when I would go for walks, because the gym closed down, to get some exercise. During this time, I would sometimes pass a coin on the street. Eventually, after passing up several, I decided to pick them up. A penny, sometimes a dime and once in a while, a quarter. I realized that this all adds up and that a few bits of change every day, turns into dollars.

Then I noticed a large number of cans and bottles - each worth anywhere from five to ten cents each. This was basically money. I just had to collect it.

I started carrying bags with me and they would fill up quickly.

How much could I make in a month? Would I ever be able to work hard enough to survive?

And then, what about the people depending upon income from collected recyclables...what was their experience like?


My first few days

Collecting cans and bottles seemed like a simple task at first. I would walk down the streets with sidewalks along streets that were designed for normal traffic flow. There I would find the occasional item lying in a curb, or along the walkway. This demonstrated to me that people were willing to dispose of their empty beverage containers by tossing them from a car, or leaving them by the roadside while they were walking themselves.

I would put everything in the same bag and worry about separating the plastic from the aluminum from the glass. By walking, I was getting my daily exercise and I felt by picking up the refuse from the city streets, helping clean up the environment. This was a multi-beneficial activity.

Sometimes I would come back with a bag that was more than half full - which testified to the careless habits of the city residents. I made it a rule in the beginning to not go into people's yards and items with contents still in them had to be given consideration. If there was a substance such as soda or water, I would empty the bottle. If I could not tell what liquid (or other matter) was inside, I would leave it alone.

I figured, if I managed to get about 25 items, this would be a little more than a dollar, fifty would bring me about 2 dollars and so on.


The Rules

As time moved on, I realized I would have to come up with some rules on how to conduct myself. After a week or two, I realized that I was probably passing up a lot of opportunities to obtain items I could turn in for money. I decided then that I would try and look for things in areas such as gas stations, hotels, car washes. As long as they were businesses open to the public and had no restrictions on access, these areas were fair game.

1. No bottles or cans from private property

2. If the contents are questionable, pass it up.

3. Trash cans in hotels, gas stations, car washes etc should always be checked.

4. Take three bags: one for glass, one for plastic, one for aluminum. It's better to sort them first.

Those are a few examples of the guidelines I would follow. I could - and did - make adjustments along the way. Some I even suspended - for example, I could go on private property with the owner's permission. I once cleaned out someone's yard which was literally littered with cans and plastic bottles. I ended up with about six bags of items.

Peering into a garbage can

Peering into a garbage can

Car Wash

Car Wash

National Alliance to End Homelessness

Story One: Territories

One of the lessons I learned while canvassing an area is you may wish to look over the space in which you plan to collect your cans. I walked up to a car wash one morning and started to look into the garbage cans. Before I could even peer into the circular tin, a young kid came running up to me.

"Hey. I already have this area! You have to move on," he said to me in a loud and terse tone. He jumped up and down, I believe for effect or perhaps from the inspiration of a night of insomnia. I could sense some nervousness in his voice, but I felt the need to put on a good show myself.

"I'm just collecting stuff. I am trying to get it," I replied to him using choppy language that I hoped would not seem threatening.

"It's called stepping on toes man. You can't do it like that. It's stepping on toes!:"

"I'm just trying to get the stuff too!"

"You have to kick rocks. It's respect. It's called stepping on toes. I was here first"

And then I turned to him, and said "Get some help man! Get some help!"

Construction sites

An open field which will one day be a freeway

An open field which will one day be a freeway

Another view with tall spires

Another view with tall spires

Story Two: Good Samaratins Abound

One of the things the experience of collecting cans has taught me is that humanity is basically good.

While in a restaurant parking lot, a woman saw me picking up the bottles and putting them into a bag. She called me over and said "here you go" and held up a plastic water container and an aluminum can. I took them for her and said "thanks" and she said "good luck".

In another instance, I was walking down the sidewalk and picking up the valuables that people had discarded - perhaps from their cars while they were driving. A man was sitting up against a wall. He was disheveled and perhaps homeless. He called out to me and walked over holding up some recyclables. I opened my bag.

"This one is for plastics and this one is for aluminum," I said. He deposited the items in their appropriate location and smiled and said "Keep moving forward". I was touched that someone who looked like they were homeless themselves was willing to share what could be their own income.

I have had people wave me over to their vehicles and then get out and take empty containers from their back seat. This testifies that there are those out there who are considerate and caring and offer compassion to someone who seems like they are struggling.

Did I feel it fair to take a few items which they were probably going to throw away? No, and yes. The main thing I was trying to discover was the experience that people you see on the street go through. What sorts of things are said to them. How they might be viewed by the average (established) citizen.


In one situation, I actually found myself in a bit of a dilemma. I had walked into a truck stop and was going through the garbage when a man looked down from his cab and said to me "Can I help you out with a little change?".

He looked genuinely concerned, even troubled.

I felt a tinge of guilt. One of the things I was hoping to take from this experience was to see how other people treated you. I wanted to be able to feel the experience of someone who is homeless and dependent upon collecting cans for survival.

"No, that's okay." I said.

He looked a bit hurt by my rejection of his assistance.

car wash

car wash

Some Myths

One of statements I have heard from others is that there are people who live in hotels and pay for their rooms collecting bottles and cans. This is a belief that seems to be established in popular culture when speaking about addicts, parolees or other people who happen to be down on their luck. I've seen reviews on sites such as yelp - usually on hotels that are run down or located in unsavory neighborhoods.

While some money can be gained from picking up stray bottles and cans, it would be difficult to imagine that anyone without any heavy equipment would be able to acquire the volume of goods that can support even the most inexpensive inn. In addition, there are concerns about food and hygiene products that have to be factored into the daily living expenses.

I have heard that there are people that can make up to $200 a day, but they usually work in groups, have access to a truck to carry their items, and are within close proximity to a center where the items can be exchanged for cash. Someone on foot or with a bicycle would have to make numerous trips and have a way to transport their items.

A can tucked under a refuse dispenser

A can tucked under a refuse dispenser

Myths - continued

You can certainly find stray items, but in order to get access to large quantities of recyclable items, you would have to go into trash cans. The competition for this is actually pretty fierce and of course, refuse contains are filled with undesirable items such as rotting food, baby diapers, and scraps of cardboard tainted with used chewing tobacco and gum.

This is really hard work and in order to acquire even twenty dollars worth of items, you would have to go through numerous containers. Truck stops, hotels, and bus depots are probably the best areas in which to do this searching. Often bottles have been used as chamber pots which make the seeking uncomfortable. Even so, there are some who depend upon this method of income and will see these things as minor inconveniences.

This isn't easy work.

On a really good day, I managed to get about $14 dollars in two hours. Even if I bumped that up to a flat 20, that would give me about 10 dollars and hour. I would have to spend a full day collecting enough items, just to find a place to stay the night and then repeat the process - every day.

I would ask the reader, how possible does this seem?

underneath, there may be gems

underneath, there may be gems

a smaller truck stop

a smaller truck stop

Some Closing Words

I started out this idea when I would go for walks and notice discarded cans and bottles long my path. I thought it might be a nice idea to start collecting them: I would get my exercise, clean up the streets, and make a few extra pennies. If I saw a nickel or dime in the street, would I pick it up? Of course. And that's what these items were, discarded change.

I then realized it could be a great social experiment. How much does someone who does this for a living rake in? I would find out, not much. It didn't seem worth it to me. But carrying around the extra weight while going for walks - and a bagful is pretty heavy - I would get more of a workout.

I also found myself getting into the role a little more. How did it feel to pick up items with traffic driving by? What sort of encounters would I have. What was it like to go through trash bins? Would people ridicule me? Did I feel looked down upon? Other than a few drivers who would honk, or drive by me close and fast, I didn't have any negative experiences. In fact, quite the opposite. I saw people willing to offer assistance.

Certainly, there are people who do this for a living. They can be seen pushing shopping carts, or carrying several bags while trying to navigate a bicycle. My few experiences cannot replicate what someone in this situation goes through. That's a fact and I don't mean to disparage anyone else's authentic plight by saying that through my actions, I can fully empathize with their situation.

I think that this experience has taught me that trying to make it through life, especially when on the streets, is an insurmountable effort. Many of the false beliefs that I previously held - such as this is how junkies survive and pay for their rooms and drugs - were dispelled.

Even spending a couple of hours in the morning and then going out in the evenings for the same period of time, I'd be lucky if I cleared $10.

I have learned what a struggle it is to depend upon luck and sometimes the generosity of others, in order to survive day to day.



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Fin


Fin (author) from Barstow on October 05, 2020:

thanks. I have to go back and fix it a little i think. It's a draft, but I wanted to get the info out..appreciate your comment

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on October 05, 2020:

This was an interesting experiment and a good read. It's sad people have to resort to this when others have so much. Thanks for sharing your story.