Kyle Hair, who spends his nights sleeping in downtown doorways, was earning about $100 a week redeeming recyclable bottles and cans before the COVID-19 social distancing measures prompted a rush on grocery stores. That pushed many to close their bottle return services amid staffing shortages.
Among the bottle redemption site closures were the two that Hair, and many other people experiencing homelessness in and around downtown Portland, frequent: Pearl District Whole Foods and downtown Target.
Now "canning," the practice of collecting recyclable cans and bottles for redemption profits, requires a trip to BottleDrops far from the city's center. Hair said the drop site most people travel to now is the Bottle Redemption Center on Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street.
Hair typically sells Street Roots, as well, but as the newspaper moves to digital-only in an effort to adhere to social distancing measures, Hair is finding he has few other options. He said when he doesn't have newspapers to sell, he'll sometimes "spange" — ask passersby for spare change. But right now, he said, "it's a ghost town out there."
Additionally, he said, more people are turning to canning for money, despite the long distance they have to haul their collections for redemption. This new competition has made the practice less fruitful.
Randy Humphreys earned $40 to $50 a week recycling bottles and cans he would collect from bars in Old Town, but since their mandated closure, he's only been able to earn about $5 or $6 per week, he said.
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