Nonprofit for Homeless Can Collectors Faces Ouster

By Serena Dai on June 10, 2014 7:28am 

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — One of the city's last remaining outreach groups that works with the homeless men and women who spend their days collecting recyclables from the garbage and turning them in for cash may soon find itself homeless as well.

Sure We Can — a privately funded nonprofit organization created in 2007 to serve those who try to make a living from recycling bottles and cans for a 5-cent deposit return, known as "canners" — signed a 5-year lease last year to pay more than $4,000 a month to rent a lot at 219 McKibbin St. near Bushwick Avenue.

The group has been on the lot on a year-to-year lease for about three years, after having moved five times in four years, and negotiated a longer lease in hopes of providing more stability to the canners.

Organizers were relieved to finally settle into the 13,000-square foot plot of land, which includes a barn to shelter recyclables from up to 100 clients a month while they sift through the bottles and cans. There's also storage lockers for the clients, most of whom are homeless, to lock up their unsifted recyclables until they're ready to redeem them.

But last month, lot owner Otto Perez's family offered the group $50,000 to end their lease early, saying a buyer had offered $3.8 million for the property a three-block walk from Roberta's Pizza and near an ever-growing number of new businesses, the founders said.

"This [space] is the best ever. We could never dream of a better place," said Ana Martinez de Luco, Sure We Can's executive director, who added that the payout wouldn't be enough to help the group relocate and find a new space. "We want to serve the canners that are coming here. It's a good service to the community."

Taking recyclables from the curbside can incur fines, but the city focuses its enforcement on schemes with highly organized people using motorized vehicles to steal recyclables, a Department of Sanitation spokeswoman said in a statement.

Despite the laws, officials have long allowed the canning community to continue collecting for a living, Martinez de Luco said.

Perez's family did not return calls for comment.

In the years since the group moved its operations to Brooklyn from Manhattan, it has collected and processed more than 27 million empty containers from the street, coordinating with canners and contacting the companies that produced the materials for pickup and repayment, Martinez de Luco said.

Sure We Can is now seeking affordable, alternative lots that are at least half the current amount of space they have, she said.

Finding a lot hasn't been easy for the nonprofit in the past, she said.

The organization has moved five times, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Martinez de Luco said that many times, the group has had neighbors point fingers at its clients, blaming it for lack of business and accusing it of attracting the homeless to sleep on the street. 

But Sure We Can has experienced no such tension on McKibbin Street, the head of the group said.

Instead, young people nearby volunteer, bring containers or compost. Sometimes, students from P.S. 147, at 325 Bushwick Ave., even come to work in the community garden, Martinez de Luco said.

Beyond seeking a new home in North Brooklyn, the group is appealing to foundations and big nonprofits for grant money in hopes of buying the McKibbin Street lot in the current buyer's stead.

"I have that hope, though I am open to other alternatives," Martinez de Luco said. "If we have to move, we have to move."

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