It’s a case of compassion vs. compassion as Seattle’s homeless crisis collides with charity donation bins.
“The homeless have been a real challenge for us because they do get into these boxes, steal clothing, dump them over, and do activity around the boxes which gives us a bad reputation for trying to do good,” said a representative with Northwest Center.
Donation boxes are often hosted on private property, where people can drop off used clothing for charities. But they have become targets for thieves and those experiencing homelessness, prompting neighbor complaints and causing damage to charity operations.
“They get in there, crawl in there, sleep in there, use it as a restroom, do drugs in there,” said the representative, who wished to remain unnamed. “And then we might catch them in there. A driver will go to service it and someone is sleeping in there.”
Northwest Center collects used clothes in donation bins around town, then sells the clothes to Value Village. The revenue goes to programs supporting children and adults with disabilities in the region.
“I have complete compassion,” the representative said. “We work with people who have a huge barrier to employment and opportunities in their communities already. With the homeless, you want to be compassionate. But it doesn’t seem to work. It doesn’t seem they want to get out. It’s like a lifestyle – an off-the-grid lifestyle. They don’t want to deal with the pain; they have this lifestyle.”
Donation bins on the decline
The representative explained the issue is now so severe that it is cutting into their revenue. They regularly receive complaints about the bins from neighbors. One Seattle citizen group has had the issue go viral on Facebook.
Northwest Center says that complaints about the donation bins are so common they often have to remove them and find another place to locate the boxes. Northwest Center has two employees dedicated to relocation – scheduling a bin removal in response to complaints, then finding a new home for it.
“We lose an average of 10 (bins) a month, but we are constantly trying to find new places – it’s a game,” the representative said.
While donations at Northwest Center receive donations other ways (drop-offs at the center, scheduling home pick-ups), donations at the bins are down. The representative estimated it was about a 10 percent drop over 2017 and attributes the decline to the homeless problem. The charity is now exploring new bins that are harder to get into.
“I don’t know if it will really help,” the representative said. “If they want to get in, they will get in … They cut the locks, break the locks.”
Other charities with donation bins in Seattle would not go on the record. One charity said it has moved its bins indoors or to more secure locations. Another organization removed bins out of the city altogether more than a year ago.
Northwest Center has dealt with donation theft for years. But over the past four years, it has gotten dramatically worse. It has altered its home pickup program. Drivers used to take a route to get donations from porches, but theives would find out their route, drive ahead and steal the donations. It now requires a scheduled home pickup.
The trucks at Northwest Center have also been broken into.
“We’ve had homeless cut off a fire extinguisher inside our van,” the representative said. “It costs us.”
“I have personally called (police) out to our headquarters with a theft in progress …” they said. “After hours. I happened to be there working late at the office. They did eventually come, but I wasn’t hopeful that it was going to result in anything.”
That’s because Northwest Center employees have often called the police about thefts and the donation bin issue in the past. The representative received a message from Seattle police officers that is commonly reported by other residents: there’s nothing police can do — that it’s not a high priority for officers. The representative said they have seen officers catch people breaking into cars near the headquarters, and then just send them along down the road.
The charity is left to do business as usual, which has become the “game” of moving around the bins after each complaint and taking a financial hit.
“The homeless situation in Seattle has gotten so bad, it’s affecting the way you do business,” the representative said. “It affects how we get our revenue. It’s costing us, it’s costing other businesses, society, my tax dollars that have to pay to clean up the camps.”