United We Can, a Vancouver, B.C., nonprofit, helps homeless and low-income people to be productive, while cleaning up destitute neighborhoods and promoting recycling.
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Ken Lyotier was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict looking for a way to make more money from Dumpster diving when he hatched the idea to organize a group of people like himself and provide a service.
Now United We Can, the enterprise he started in 1995, is distributing about $2 million a year to hundreds of people working as “binners” in the city’s Downtown Eastside.
Its social-enterprise model helps homeless and low-income people to be productive, while cleaning up destitute neighborhoods and promoting recycling.
A line of people pushing shopping carts full of cans and bottles forms early outside of United We Can’s storefront warehouse along East Hastings Street, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the developed world.
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About 700 people a day earn cash by bringing in recyclables to the nonprofit’s warehouse, where they are paid the amount of the deposit. United We Can’s 150 employees sort the recyclables and truck them to a processing center, earning a small handling fee from beverage companies that pays for its operations.
“People who are engaged in this activity are looking to earn some money from the work they’re doing,” Lyotier said. “We’re talking about people in a community where that’s been very hard and challenging to accomplish.”
Most binners make about $10 a day, which helps them eke out a living or supplements fixed income from social welfare or retirement. But binners have also become employees of United We Can.
A job with the nonprofit helped Christine Smallenberg, 40, who had been homeless, move from the Downtown Eastside into an apartment of her own.
“That old idea of a lazy bum on welfare not willing to earn a living — mostly I’ve found that not to be the case,” Lyotier said. “People feel like they want to be productive. It’s a question of creating an environment where that works for them and also for society in general.”
United We Can expanded into a business program to send workers to collect donated recyclables from downtown hotels and restaurants, and the nonprofit was awarded a grant from the city to serve downtown recycling sites during next month’s Winter Olympics. It will be able to employ at least 60 more people and double the amount of business normally done this time of year.
The nonprofit designed special carts for the purpose with colorful bins and noiseless rubber wheels that can hook to the back of a bicycle.
Lyotier, 62, started out like many entrepreneurs: trying to solve a problem in business. It just so happened that his business was rummaging through trash.
He ran into barriers when stores didn’t want him coming in, wouldn’t take back bottles or wouldn’t pay the full deposit, and he had no place to store what he collected.
“I was dirty, the stuff was dirty and they were trying to do business,” he said.
One day Lyotier was in a coffee shop talking with a minister from a local church who told him how to apply for a source of funding to start a small operation. Lyotier soon had a purpose and $1,500 in seed capital.
He made fliers and spread the word to street people that he was going to set up a one-day recycling depot at a downtown park and would pay them for empty bottles. People lined up for blocks, produced a mountain of containers and helped Lyotier launch his venture.
Lyotier said seeing so many people without hope come together was one of the happiest experiences of his life.
“People were motivated by the prospect of making $10 for bringing in cans and bottles,” he said. “Up to that time, they had been quite invisible, but they were coming together because we had engaged them in this event.”
Since then, United We Can has started other services such as cleaning up alleys, and a bicycle and computer-repair shop and an urban vegetable garden.
The model is an example of the potential to invest in deep and meaningful social change, he said.
“You will find many binners that work very, very hard — much harder than a normal worker — for a very minor return,” he said. But he added that they can’t be accepted in a traditional workplace.
“Do we try to change them to fit into that environment or do we create an environment that allows them to be productive and have value?”
Even as he has worked 16-hour days to build United We Can into a success and model for other cities, Lyotier witnessed the area around it slip further into social decline.
Chronic homelessness, open drug dealing, mental illness and prostitution plague the neighborhood, and problems have worsened the past decade. The problems often land on United We Can’s doorstep. Besides beverage containers, binners collected 80,000 needles last year.
“I can recall a time when people lining up might have collected a bunch of cigarette butts to break down for the tobacco,” Lyotier said. “I’d discourage them from littering the sidewalk with cigarette butts. If that was the main problem now, that would be a teddy bear’s picnic. There’s been a sea change in behavior.”
United We Can’s decrepit 100-year-old building has flaking paint and creeping mold and now limits capacity for the operation to grow. A T-shirt with a corner chewed off by rats hangs in the office as testament.
Lyotier hopes to find a new home for the business, but it hasn’t been easy.
He retired two years ago but serves on United We Can’s board and in the community. As the Olympics arrive, Lyotier hopes to make a point about the struggles people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside face every day.
“People are striving in all kinds of ways,” he said. “They make it an inch at a time, and that needs to be recognized.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org