Juan Garcia rises early each day to pick up garbage dumped in public spaces.
As a crew supervisor for Metro’s RID Patrol, he has helped clean up much of the 392 tons of trash that RID crews collected last year around greater Portland. Garcia is upbeat and brings optimism to his work. “I’d rather focus on the positive rather than the negative,” he says. “It makes the day go by easier.”
In addition to picking up items like soggy sofas and broken televisions that regularly get cast aside in neighborhoods around the region, Garcia has begun picking up white garbage bags with Metro’s phone number printed in bold on the side.
The bags are part of a new and growing program that brings garbage collection services to people who don't have any—people experiencing homelessness.
Garcia says that his own life experience helps him relate to the people he meets on the job. He remembers a time when he was around 11 or 12 years old. His family was living out of a blue station wagon in a public park, he says. They would hang out in the park all day, eat outside, then pile into the car to make themselves comfortable for the night. Eventually, they moved into a house.
“I had no idea we had no place to go. I just assumed that it was the best my parents could provide,” he says. “I don’t know why my parents were in that situation. And that's my starting point each day when I'm driving around on calls—I don’t know the stories of the people I meet out here."
Garcia says that people living outside often offer to help him clean up. He recalls one site where a man was sweeping with a broom he'd made himself out of branches from a bush. “And he was literally making piles of rigid plastic and metal to recycle,” he adds.
On a recent morning, Garcia responded to a call to remove trash across from JOIN, a nonprofit serving the homeless population. Some folks were camping nearby. A number of them pitched in with the pick-up.
Richard Catlett was one of them. He helped fill 15 trash bags that Garcia hauled off.
"Homeless people aren't trash. We aren't worthless," Richard Catlett said as he pointed to some garbage on the ground. "This is a by-product of how we're forced to live."
After loading the bags, Garcia thanked Catlett for his efforts. Then he glanced at his tablet to see where his next cleanup was and started the truck.
"I've experienced compassion from others and maybe I've never been able to say thank you to them," Garcia says. “Showing compassion to others now is one way to express my gratitude."