Thursday, April 25, 2013

Recycling and Gleaning: the Right of the Poor, the Obligation of the Rich

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those who are perishing." (Prov 31:8)

Jill recently attended a meeting in which local business leaders were proud of the fact that they had successfully closed down a recycling center on the corner of Washington and Lake Ave, a low-income area where Food for Less is located. According to theese business leaders, this center was attracting unsightly people who used their money to buy single cans of beer. The presence of such people is seen as “bad for business.”

Our friend Mark is a formerly homeless man who lives in our backhouse and occasionally brings cans to be recycled. He was outraged.

“Most of those who recycle are poor families,” he claimed. “Most people who recycle aren’t causing anyone any trouble. They’re just poor.”

We had a discussion about how to document who used the recyclying cener, and for what purpose. In Making Housing Happen (p. 222-223), Jill tells the story of Charles Suhayda, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, who was trained as a scientist and who trained homeless people to conduct a scientifically valid survey to determine the needs of the homeless in his area. Armed with data, the homeless and their advocates formed the Hollywood Community Action Network (HCAN) and successfully lobbied the City Council to provide needed services.

Generally speaking, business leaders and middle class people don’t like to see anyone poor or homeless in their area. This phenomenon is called NIMBYism ("Not in my backyard").
In various cities (such as La Jolla, San Francisco, Monrovia) there has been push-back by local businesses when recycling centers open up that are used by the poor and the homeless. But there is usually no objection when they are run by churches for middle class folks, as this article explains.

This puts the poor into an impossible bind. The middle class objects when the poor panhandle, but when the poor try to earn an honest living by recycling, it’s still objectionable. Why?

When the poor recycle, they are actually performing a public service. Some gather cans from the street, which is certainly commendable. Others rummage through the trash. In either case, they are saving taxpayers money since the county and city recycling centers pay people to sort out what’s recyclable. The poor do it without charging the taxpayer a dime.

True, some of the homeless recyclers are alcoholics who use their money to buy booze. But if they weren’t earning money by recycling, they will have to panhandle or steal to feed their addiction. Isn’t recycling a preferable option?

This is an issue that churches should take seriously for biblical as well as moral reasons.

The Old Testament makes it clear that God has ordained “gleaning” as an obligation for the rich to give the poor (and foreigners) a chance to gather their own food instead of begging:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”

In today’s urbanized setting, recycling can be seen a form of gleaning. It provides the poor a chance to earn needed income from the scraps from the tables of the rich and middle class. To deny the poor that right is to disobey one of God’s commands. It also denies the poor a chance to perform useful work for the pubblic good.

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