With Aluminum Gold, Little Village is launching a three-part series on what homelessness in Iowa City and Eastern Iowa looks like. We can’t pledge to satisfy or break every stereotype, but we can pledge to give you stories you haven’t heard before. We’re beginning this series in October because its already damn cold outside, and while the housing crisis hasn’t been as dramatic in Iowa as it’s been in California and Michigan, the extent of the economic disaster has yet to be seen. Times have never been more uncertain. Those who have found themselves homeless in Iowa might look and act different from us, but you never know what you might have in common with your neighbor, even if that neighbor doesn’t have a roof to sleep under.
Bobby has a regular job—he washes dishes for a restaurant in Iowa City. He also has a 2001 Pontiac Grand Am, but is currently in the process of finding an engine that works. Bobby has another way to make money for an engine when he is not washing dishes. It doesn’t involve taxes, long hours or even a boss, and most of the work is done outside. His workplace is located in the backyard of many renters’ apartments. More precisely, it is located in the dumpsters.
Bobby, who is known around town as Bobby J, is one of the many people who scavenge around the trash and dumpsters throughout Iowa City looking for soda and beer cans. These back-alley people refer to each other as “canners.” Most of them are homeless, or as one canner says “nomads,” and Iowa City is just a brief stop before moving on to better things—wherever that may be.
On the summer day I met Bobby in the alley between South Johnson and Dodge streets, he is an hour and a half into his usual rounds of scavenging through dumpsters. He sticks to his regular four alleys when canning to avoid confrontation with other canners.
“Some dudes are tripping. They come up to you and say, ‘what are you doing?’ Thinking they own the dumpsters, but they don’t, the dumpsters belong to the city,” said Bobby.
He recalls numerous instances when he has been confronted by other canners, but for the most part he believes that the majority of canners respect each other.On good days, Bobby can make a substantial amount of money. When I met with him, he had already collected five trash bags worth of cans, three white 32-gallon bags and two large black heavy-duty bags.
“The white ones are worth $5, and the black ones are worth $10,” said Bobby. “That is how you know how much you made.” Bobby had made $35 in an hour and a half. “Today is a good day for me because a bunch of students are moving out and throwing a bunch of stuff out. Some days are better than others. Some days you don’t find anything,” said Bobby.
Bobby finds all kinds of things in the dumpsters. He has found everything from televisions and DVD players to clothes and furniture. But he says the most shocking thing he found was a quarter-ounce of marijuana inside a glass container outside Hotel Vetro, located in downtown Iowa City. “They must have forgot they had it and thrown it out,” said Bobby. “I gave it to my brother and he wouldn’t stop hugging me.”
Down the road from South Johnson Street, on Riverside, a canner who wants to be called the Missionary Man is busy depositing his cans at a Hy-Vee grocery store. The smell of old, stale beer and trash flood the nostrils in the small room crammed with people. The Missionary Man just got in from Michigan and his only financial income is from what he gets canning. He says they call him the Missionary Man because he is a missionary, traveling from town to town preaching the Word of God.
“I use whatever I get from canning on food, laundry and to travel,” the Missionary Man said. He doesn’t want to reveal his real name because he says that will only get in the way of his message: “Ask God for anything and He will give it to you.”
For an example, he tells of a dry spell while canning and cans were hard to find.
“I asked God to help me out,” said the Missionary Man. “I just wanted to find one can, and then a man came up to me and gave me a whole sack full of cans.”
The official stance on the canners and the homeless in Iowa City is hard to get a clear answer to. According to a Housing and Homeless Needs assessment for Iowa City many homeless people come to Iowa City because of the city’s reputation of social services, expectation of higher wages, the hospitals and the university in general. But as the assessment says, “many persons encounter the realities of life in a university town. Iowa City has the highest housing costs as a percentage of income of any community in the state; homeless persons have to compete with students for the limited amount of housing that is relatively affordable.”
In addition to high housing costs, the Iowa City job market leaves something to be desired, where low-paying, no-benefit, and temporary jobs are plentiful, but the competition for those jobs is high.
People with little to no income can find help in the area’s social services if they have patience. “Waiting lists for many of the community’s services can mean weeks of waiting for housing or medical assistance,” the assessment continues. “The result is that many individuals and families in this group often arrive in Iowa City jobless, homeless, and often needing medical care.”
The police refer to the homeless in the city as transients because most of them are always on the move. Happily, the department has never received any complaints of any wrongdoing from canner collecting cans.
One worker for an Iowa City maintenance company, who asked to remain nameless so as not to reflect his company’s policy, says he doesn’t mind when the canners scavenge through the dumpster. The only problem he has ever encountered with the canners is when they don’t clean up after themselves. Some canners will dig through the dumpsters, pull a garbage bag, scavenge through it and then leave what they don’t want on the street. The worker says he has more problems when transients try to sleep inside apartment buildings and he has to kick them out.
“We do from time to time get calls of service for transients trespassing,” said Iowa City Lt. Doug Hart. “Most of these come in the winter when it is cold and they are looking for shelter in an apartment building with heat in the hallways.”
In Iowa City, as in most northern cities, the biggest danger to the homeless is the cold winter weather.
Each night 29 homeless people can stay at Johnson County’s only community shelter, Shelter House, located on 331 North Gilbert Street. Shelter House turns an average of 10 people away each night, and can not expand until a zoning lawsuit in a different neighborhood is settled.
Shelter House does not allow intoxicated individuals to stay the night, a rule that yields mixed results.
“Every night a homeless person will come in and complain that ‘the hotel’ will not let them stay,” said Liquor Downtown employee Morgan McHugh.
“The hotel” is what many of the homeless call Shelter House. McHugh said a homeless man called Red faked a heart attack in order to stay at the hospital because he was inebriated and Shelter House wouldn’t let him stay. She says she gets to know many homeless people in the area.
“I see Red almost everyday I work. He is crazy and would fake a heart attack, but for the most part, harmless. Very few of them scare me,” said McHugh.
But one scary encounter did occur one late night, when a young homeless man came in and began making suicidal threats. McHugh recalled the man saying, “My life is pointless,” and “My life is only worth five bucks.” McHugh expects things like this to happen every so often, she said, when working late-night hours at a liquor store.
Depression is common among the nation’s homeless and in Iowa City the factors contributing to homelessness often follow national trends, including mental disabilities, substance abuse, domestic abuse and violence, job loss, and medical, financial or social predicaments that they can not recover from, according to the assessment.
While the solution to homelessness may lie in better access to mental health and housing services, waiting for the cure isn’t an option for many. In the meantime, a full bag of cans and a warm bed are welcome relief from the streets.
For the most part, canners have become an ordinary part of life for many Iowa City residents. Many of us may pass by them regularly without even noticing, but some residents get to know the canners scavenging through their trash.
“I know the names of the two guys who usually are around looking for cans,” said Tom Chivers, a UI student. “I see them every couple of days and small talk. They’re really nice people.”
Chivers believes the canners give Iowa City a kind of big city feeling, that he never felt while living his childhood in a small western Iowa town.
Others have a more difficult time relating to the canners. Chiver’s roommate, Jared Rodriquez, tells of the time when he opened the back door of his house leaving for work when a homeless man was ready to open the same door on the opposite side.
“It scared the shit out of me,” said Rodriquez. “He said he was going to knock, but I know he was going to just come in.”
Another UI Student, Dan Meenan, had a similar instance happen to him.
“It is cool whenever they stay at the dumpsters, but one time a homeless man walked into my house and took all the cans we had in our kitchen,” said Meenan, a UI senior. Meenan says he confronted the canner and asked him what he was doing, but in the end let him keep the cans.
Crystal Rueck goes as far as sacking her cans up and giving them to a canner who often sleeps outside by her dumpster.
“I saw him looking through the dumpster one day, and I thought that I could help out; so from then on, I just threw all my cans in a garbage bag and give it to him,” said Rueck. “That’s what I would want people to do if I were him.”
The emotions conjured up from people when they talk about the homeless ranges from sympathy to anger, but most realize that the homeless situation is a part of Iowa City that will probably never go away.
“It is sad to see sometimes, and I will help if I can, but there is really not a lot I can do,” said Chivers.
Back at the Riverfront Hy-Vee, three University of Iowa students are busy depositing the cans that have been piling up in their basement all year long, when the Missionary Man pulls up on his worn out bicycle with four large black trash bags dangling from the side.
The students make room for the Missionary Man to count his cans in the cramped confines of the recycling center. As he begins emptying a days worth of work into the automated can counters, the three students tell him that he can have the rest of their cans because they are tired of doing it.
“See,” he says, “all you have to have is faith, and good things will happen to you.”
Dan Watson is a journalism and English student at The University of Iowa. Currently he’s enjoying living in downtown Iowa City and is excited to enter the worst economic environment since the Great Depression after he graduates in May.