Source: The Guardian
When his body was found in a dumpster outside an Amazon warehouse, the homeless man’s death was a mystery. The search to uncover his past exposes the dangers of a life spent scavenging.
The day before last year’s presidential election, a hungry homeless man named Jonathan Manley stopped at a dumpster outside a warehouse in San Francisco. Unmarked on the outside, the building was occupied by Amazon. For those able to tolerate the grime and the smell, and who had no other choice but to risk eating expired or rotting food, the large dumpsters stationed there could be bountiful. Visitors say they have found ice cream, bananas, strawberries, grapes and frozen pizzas, not to mention cans and packaging that can be sold for pennies at recycling centers. The lid was too high and too heavy for Manley to flip open from the sidewalk, so he climbed the side, pulled the lid back and dropped into the trash. It was full of things to eat. “That’s when I noticed him,” Manley said. At the front, on all fours as if he was struggling to stand up, was a middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt, pants and boots. He had a graying mustache and beard, his hands were caked with dirt and there was blood around his nose.
Manley tried to wake him but could not. He tried to lift him, but the man weighed too much and was too stiff. Poking his head out of the dumpster, Manley saw two passersby walking a dog across the street and yelled for them to call 911. When the paramedics arrived, they determined that the man was beyond resuscitation.
Dumpsters can be life-sustaining for people surviving on the streets. But a Guardian investigation has found that they are also implicated in dozens of homeless deaths. This has added resonance in San Francisco, where the economy hinges on the noncorporeal – algorithms, the cloud and the flows of venture capital – yet some 4,500 people sleeping outdoors still struggle each night for the basic physical necessities of existence. They subsist in the interstices of the new paradigm, or in some cases off its waste. Just inside the Amazon warehouse, visitors are confronted by shelves stacked with food, everything from peanut butter to tabasco sauce, Oreos, teabags and jello.
In another room, staff hurriedly prepare bags of shopping. When they are ready, delivery people dispatch this abundance to the inhabitants of San Francisco. The garbage receptacles outside are not the first tech dumpsters to have attracted the attention of homeless locals. A few years ago, they responded with wonder and bemusement to a dumpster by a nearby Google warehouse.
It “had every kind of food you can imagine”, said a resident named Michael Mundy. “They just threw it away, thousands of dollars’ worth.” But the warehouse closed down, and people had to look elsewhere. “All of a sudden,” said a woman who only gave her first name, Renee, “they started talking about Amazon”.
For about a week after stumbling on the body, Manley went through the encampments of south-eastern San Francisco, trying to find somebody who was missing someone. Thousands of homeless people die in American cities each year to little fanfare, and the Amazon incident barely made the news. Neither the man’s name nor the occupant of the warehouse appear to have ever been reported. At an encampment underneath a highway, he came across a woman who had strung up dried flowers around her tent and cultivated succulents. Cheryl Iversen, 49, had riotous, flaming orange hair, a personality to match and, fittingly, went by the name of Tygrr, pronounced “Tiger”. Manley told her what he had discovered, and she felt the burden of not knowing what had happened to Frank Ryan lifted. “I said ‘thank you’,” she recalled. “He held me when I cried.”
An abusive childhood had led Iversen to run away at 12, and then to exotic dancing, a bad marriage and a heroin addiction. She calls herself a “functional junkie”. Over a decade ago she met Ryan, whose own origins are unclear. His friends said he was the son of a gold-miner. One suggested he had been sexually abused. He had lived in RVs in the Bay Area since at least the 1990s, making a living by scavenging scrap metal. On occasion he could earn thousands of dollars per haul, with which he subsidized meth and marijuana habits. He was never seen without a jug of milk in his hands and obsessively collected rocks that he hoped were meteorites. Iversen vividly remembers the day they got together. They were wading by a pier in San Francisco Bay, gathering stones that they could sell and placing them on a plastic float. As the tide rose, they sat on the float, and had to lie down when their heads started to bump on the pier above. He brushed her hair from her cheek and they kissed. A few days later, Iversen wrote a poem about it that she still remembers by heart.
“He had such a beautiful soul, he was so smart,” she said. “He never once made me feel stupid for not knowing something.” Although they were not monogamous – Iversen described herself dismissively as a “side-piece” – towards the end Ryan had told her he wanted to settle down with her in a warehouse squat. When she last saw him he said he was going to look for ice cream.
For those so inclined, living out of dumpsters can occasion philosophy. “Almost everything I have now has already been cast out at least once, proving that what I own is valueless to someone,” Lars Eighner wrote in his treatise On Dumpster Diving. Eighner’s experiences were distinct from those of people who dumpster-dive as a lifestyle choice – he began when he was struggling to pay rent, and the day-to-day realities were brutal. “No matter how careful I am I still get dysentery at least once a month, oftener in warm weather,” he said. A Guardian review of news reports from the last decade has found at least 50 cases of dumpster-related homeless deaths and serious injuries. In some instances, the dumpster is simply the bleak setting. On Christmas Day last year, a Wichita, Kansas, man was found in a dumpster outside a bakery, and while a preliminary autopsy suggested he died of natural causes, his relatives could not fathom what had prompted him to get inside. In other examples, it is the act of trash collection itself that is fatal. A man in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was tipped out of a dumpster and then run over by a garbage truck. In Forth Worth, Texas, a screaming man had a heart attack after the dumpster he was inside was picked up. More common are situations in which homeless people, sleeping in dumpsters or sheltering from the elements, are collected by garbage or recycling trucks and compacted along with the trash. This is why ruined bodies sometimes end up at the dump. I could just hear my bones breaking. It was just going through my legs like a hot knife through butter Marcus Baldwin In 2003, a woman sued a waste-management company for more than $10m after her brother was suffocated in this way in Portland, Oregon, alleging “reckless and outrageous indifference” to homeless lives. In an interview, her lawyer, Greg Kafoury, recalled the testimony of a garbage worker, who said that after picking up dumpsters with his truck he shook them in order to wake anyone sleeping inside, and taught his colleagues to do the same. Kafoury also remembers hypothesizing before the jury that, because six people had died in similar circumstances over the course of several years in Oregon, a state with a little over 1% of the US population, as many as 600 could have been killed in the country as a whole. The lawsuit “was a chance to save untold numbers of lives”, he said – but he lost. “Somebody needs to take one of these cases and go the distance with it because the case can be won.” On occasion, though, there are survivors. In November 2016, about two weeks after Ryan climbed into the dumpster, Marcus Baldwin did the same thing in Mount Clemens, just north of Detroit. Alcoholism had led to the breakdown of his marriage and to homelessness. Finally he found a job in demolition, but he still had nowhere to stay, and after work on a cold and wet night a dumpster beckoned. It was filled with cardboard and seemed clean. He fell asleep.
At around 5.30am, he awoke to “this beeping noise”, Baldwin said. “The next thing I knew, I was going up into the air.” Falling on his head, he was disoriented and in pain, and he had the sensation of having been dropped into a sewer. It was greasy and filled with rotten food, old clothes and construction materials. He screamed for the driver to no avail. About 15 minutes after Baldwin was picked up, the compacting process began. A contraption that reminded him of a snow shovel began to move along the length of the vehicle and pinned Marcus to an interior wall. “I could just hear my bones breaking,” Baldwin said. “It was just going through my legs like a hot knife through butter.” Both were shattered. Baldwin thinks he was compacted another five times, every quarter-hour or so. He tried to protect himself with a shopping cart. Eventually the driver noticed him and he was rescued, but owing to a bad infection doctors had to amputate his right leg below the knee.
The life expectancy of homeless people is only around 50; when he died, Ryan was 55 or so. His autopsy report gave the verdict of a methamphetamine overdose. At his wake, his friends poured some of his ashes into the bay along with jugs of milk and some buds of weed. His dog was adopted, and Iversen planted a garden of succulents and cacti near her tent in his memory. “I’ve never felt so right in my life,” she said of her time with Ryan, “and nothing has been right since. It probably never will be, and what can I expect? Such a big piece of me is gone.” In a statement, Amazon, which recently announced that it would host a homeless shelter in one of its new buildings in Seattle, called the death a “sad event”. Surprisingly, considering that Ryan appears to have dropped off the map long ago, the impact of his passing has reverberated far beyond a small homeless community in an obscure part of San Francisco. In the vicinity of Spokane, Washington, for instance, there lives a 34-year-old who is also called Frank Ryan. He is the late Frank Ryan’s long-lost son.
In the late 1980s, when he was six or seven, he lived with his father, as well as with his father’s new wife and her daughter from a previous relationship. The younger Ryan remembers little of his father beyond a birthday when he was given a bike and shown how to assemble it. The two Frank Ryans were separated when the son was, as he describes it, spirited away by his mother. “Even if he was looking as hard as he could he probably wouldn’t have been able to find me due to the measures my mother had taken,” Ryan said in an interview recently. “I never harbored any ill will.” During an itinerant period in the western US with his mother, he said he lived in a van and slept on blankets on the ground and obtained food from churches and food banks. Now he has a young family and works in security for the federal government.
Several months before his father’s death, the older Ryan re-established contact via Facebook, and they made plans to meet for the first time in three decades. These plans were interrupted because Ryan Sr accidentally shot himself in the groin while trying to remove the rust from a discarded handgun, leaving him hobbling and unable to work or pay for travel. He died before the meeting could take place. “The fact that he was hungry enough to crawl into a dumpster definitely was the hardest part,” the younger Ryan said. It “stirred up” his own experiences of homelessness. When the younger Ryan was taken away by his mother, he also lost contact with the little girl who was residing with them. Today Danielle Lent, who goes by the name Avalon, is 37 and lives in a town an hour north of San Francisco. Her memories of her stepsibling are warm, though the relationship between the adults was anything but harmonious. The older Ryan only seemed to care about the drugs he was taking. And one night, she said, he entered Lent’s room and sexually abused her, the first of several occasions. Lent remembers herself “just staring at the alarm clock, saying ‘when is this going to be over?’” Afterwards her mother did not believe her. Indeed, when the older Ryan became homeless, Lent’s mother took food and money to him. “My mom was so in love with him and he did all these bad things to both of us. I still have night terrors over all of this. I’m on anxiety medication.”
The importance of finding her stepsibling was impressed on Lent by her mother. “On her deathbed she told me, ‘Danielle Marie, I have three wishes,’ and this is the last wish that she asked for.” For Lent herself, the relationship seemed like one of the best things from that time. At Lent’s request, and with Ryan’s permission, the Guardian put them in touch with one another, and on Christmas Day they spoke for the first time since they were children. “He said he’s not stopped looking for me,” Lent told a reporter afterwards. “And I never stopped looking for him.” “It seems more than a coincidence that out of the millions of homeless Americans that you could do a story on, it would be my father,” said Ryan.
The Amazon dumpsters continue to provide.
On a Saturday morning earlier this year, a brown-haired young man wearing a varsity jacket cycled up and climbed inside in full view of passing cars and pedestrians. At that moment, the gate of the warehouse loading dock rose to reveal a staffer clutching some white trash bags. He moved to throw the bags into the open dumpster when he caught sight of the visitor. They locked eyes. The employee gently tossed the bags to the dumpster-diver, who opened them. A few minutes later, the homeless man got on to the bike, balanced a few items on the handlebars and unsteadily rode off.