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Trash Cans: Another Step in Evolution of Street People

You say you don’t believe in evolution, and yet how can you deny it? Evidence of it is unfolding right here in front of your eyes. All you have to do is stroll around the walkways of the Santa Ana Civic Center to see how the species is advancing.

In its early form, the species was a simple one to deal with. Its members were bums or winos who carried a paper sack with a bottle inside. That made them easy to dismiss.

But they proved a hardy lot and their numbers began to proliferate. Soon you couldn’t help but notice that a lot of them didn’t appear to be drunk at all. And then you started noticing children and young mothers. Then, intact families appeared on the scene, living in the shadows but still visible.

That made the study of the species much more uncomfortable for the rest of us. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a matter of people with no ambition or self worth; it was people caught in a social vise of unemployment or sickness or some other unforeseen catastrophe and with no safety net. People started thinking, “Geez, what combination of circumstances would it take for me to wind up without a home?” Many people still couldn’t conceive of it, but a surprisingly larger number could.

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As nature has shown, the species began evolving in response to its environment. People out on the streets, having come from the real world with real jobs, had possessions. They had to have somewhere to keep them.

Coat pockets, which had served winos so well, weren’t enough for the advanced species. Neither were packs and bedrolls. Thus, the quantum leap to plastic trash bags slung over the shoulder and, as the homeless gravitated toward the mechanized world, the grocery cart.

That’s where we pick up the story today.

We are now at the brink of the next great leap forward in the evolution of the species.

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The problem with grocery carts is that they tend to be a tad on the open-air side. You might think what’s the big deal, but let’s say you live in a house and need to go look for a job. Do you leave all your possessions out on your front lawn? Assuming you don’t, you begin to get an idea of the problem facing homeless people looking for work.

In short, keeping one’s possessions had become a big problem for the species.

Clearly, a point in history had arrived where the species needed to take the next step. And into the breach this week stepped Project Dignity, a nonprofit group in Garden Grove.

It is making available about 75 giant, hard plastic trash barrels, the kind suburban families use for table scraps and other garbage. For the homeless, the news of the impending arrival of the trash barrels was met with hosannas.

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“It’s better than a shopping cart,” a 33-year-old homeless man told me the other day at the Civic Center. His new can, complete with wheels and which he tied onto the back of his bicycle, still awaited its padlock and his identification number. He said most of the people he knew liked the idea, although someone already had tried to break a lock on someone else’s trash can with a rock.

I’m not worried about that. The homeless species is strong and will adapt to that too.

You’re waiting for a message, some point to all this. And there is none. Just straight reportage that as a society we’ve evolved to the point where getting your own trash can with your personal identification number and “certificate of ownership” represents a cause for celebration.

The villain in all this isn’t Project Dignity.

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Not even Linda Dunlap, the project’s vice president, denies that the trash barrels are potentially demeaning. “I think the conditions we have taking place in this country, not just in Orange County and around the Civic Center, but with 35,000 homeless children on the streets of Los Angeles, is appalling and very degrading,” she said. “I think, though, that we need to do what we can to alleviate and assist the situation. If the solutions are disgusting to people, I would think they’d think the problem is even more disgusting.”

The homeless population in Orange County probably numbers between 10,000 and 12,000, according to Susan Oakson, executive director of the Homeless Issues Task Force, a local private nonprofit group. “With the economic times we’re in, there are more and more people at risk of homelessness, in large part because of the lack of affordable housing,” Oakson said.

With many people paying upwards of one-half to three-quarters of their incomes for rents, the loss of a job or a catastrophic medical bill can easily result in the loss of a home, she said.

I am not an evolutionary biologist. I don’t know where we are on the time line of the homeless in America.

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But lest you think we have reached the end of the evolutionary scale, consider:

Later this year Dunlap and her husband, who produce programs for cable TV, are preparing a show on the fine art of dumpster dining.

The purpose, Dunlap said, is to show the homeless how to recognize poisonous food found in dumpsters “so they do not poison themselves.”

Yes, my friends, our society continues to evolve, doesn’t it?

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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