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City Trash Law Draws Protest

Homeless Advocates Say Rule Against Scavenging Is Unfair

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Local homeless advocates are protesting a Cambridge City Council resolution unanimously adopted last Monday, under which the city prohibits scavengers from picking through recycling containers.

The resolution, introduced by City Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, calls for stricter enforcement by police of a 1992 law that fines second-offenders $25 for stealing material left on the curb for recycling.

Scavenging for recyclables is "a popular way of getting change in an honest way," said Elana M. Oberstein '97, co-director of Phillips Brooks House's St. James homeless shelter.

But Toomey said some of his constituents have complained to him about the disturbance caused by noisy late-night trash pickers. City residents have also objected to the garbage that scavengers leave strewn about, attracting dogs, raccoons and rats.

According to Toomey, this garbage--along with the risk to trash-pickers of exposure to discarded IV needles--creates a health hazard for the community.

There are also issues of privacy for Cambridge residents who put their trash out on the street, said Commissioner of Public Works Ralph Dunphy.

In 1992, Dunphy said, residents were up in arms over a city plan to open trash bags to see whether residents were complying with Cambridge recycling ordinances.

If citizens rejected the "trash police," Dunphy suggested, they might equally oppose private snoopers.

Finally, Toomey said the ban doesn't primarily target the homeless.

The ordinance's chief goal, he said, is to stop semi-professional outfits of curbside thieves that drive around at night and pick up recyclable materials in a truck or van to sell later in bulk.

"These people are making money," Toomey said. "Some of them are professionals."

The city will spend over $925,000 on curbside recycling for fiscal year 1996-97, and Toomey said the recycleable material should help pay for the cost.

Toomey said it is more acceptable for homeless people to scavenge through waste bins during the daylight hours, and he said he is not sure whether the ban will affect daytime pickers.

But Oberstein said foraging for recyclables is an essential means of support for many homeless people.

"You or I wouldn't think twice about going into Store 24 for a Veryfine punch, but if you're panhandling, that's a whole day's work," she said.

"They can do a little bit more for these individuals who have no jobs, no housing," she said.

But Toomey said Cambridge already provides more services for the homeless than any other community in Massachusetts.

"We offer more shelters than any other comparable city in the state. A lot of the people in the homeless shelters aren't even from Cambridge," he said.

Dunphy said he agrees people shouldn't be allowed to rummage through recycling bins late at night.

But, he said, "Having them take my Pepsi bottles: there are worse things in the world.

"They can do a little bit more for these individuals who have no jobs, no housing," she said.

But Toomey said Cambridge already provides more services for the homeless than any other community in Massachusetts.

"We offer more shelters than any other comparable city in the state. A lot of the people in the homeless shelters aren't even from Cambridge," he said.

Dunphy said he agrees people shouldn't be allowed to rummage through recycling bins late at night.

But, he said, "Having them take my Pepsi bottles: there are worse things in the world.

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