Free Lunch

Freegans prove there is such a thing as they Dumpster-dive for food for themselves and the homeless

Chichi grocery stores seem to be among the biggest offenders. Their Dumpsters offer bittersweet abundance for freegans.

"I'll eat anything out of the Dumpster," says Lyons, "but I wish it weren't there. I'd like eventually for our society to not have waste like that."

Store owners often go to great lengths to keep people from digging in the bins, even though they want nothing to do with what's inside.

Rhon Harris enjoys a plate...
Rhon Harris enjoys a plate...
…while others wait patiently in line.
Courtesy of
…while others wait patiently in line.

"I think the mentality is that if people can get it for free, they won't buy it," Lyons says. "So the capitalist world or whatever doesn't want to make anything free available. Obviously, it's impractical to really care that much, but some places really do."

When the Houston Press followed Lyons on a recent foraging mission, he came across a locked Dumpster behind a shopping center. One tug later and the lock was off, the lid open. He tossed the lock inside the Dumpster and hopped in.

As an example of the absurd measures people take to protect their garbage, he describes the scene behind the McDonald's at Main and Rosewood. A large cinder-block building is locked tight by a metal gate. On top of the structure, broken bottles have been cemented onto the blocks. And then there's concentration-camp-style razor wire on top of all of that. Inside the building are one Dumpster and a grease trap.

"Who wants a Big Mac anyway?" he asks.

His 27-year-old housemate, Nicole Caldwell, adds, "It's like they've got gold in there or something."

Razor wire is but one of the dangers faced by Dumpster-divers. One 26-year-old participant in the Houston chapter of Food Not Bombs, who asked not to be named, was shot two years ago while diving with a friend in Oakland.

"We were digging through, finding great pastries to bring back to our friends, when I began to notice a car had passed by us at least twice before," he says. "I climbed out of the Dumpster and on top of the fence when I heard a terrifyingly loud blast. I did not see much and did not feel any pain, but felt numb and knew something was wrong."

As he tried to get down, his pants got caught on the razor wire and he ended up hanging upside down -- and then plummeted to the ground.

He had been sprayed with buckshot. It shattered his femur and decimated a vein in his left leg.

"My loss of blood was so high that I was very, very, very lucky that the ambulance arrived," he says. "Otherwise I would have died.

"For a long time I was terrified to be out at night and to be around Dumpsters, but I knew I had to get over that," he says. "It has been two years and I am cautious when I am out at night, but I continue to Dumpster-dive regularly, ride my bicycle incessantly and [live] the way I desire."

Freegans also must deal with guard dogs, tricky trash compactors and bleach thrown on food by business owners. And then there are the cops. City code states that it is unlawful for anyone to handle material that has been placed for collection.

Sergeant Rose Terry of the Houston Police Department acknowledges that the police are likely to turn a blind eye to homeless people digging through the trash.

"[But] if you see a group of kids doing something like that," she says, "then your antennas are going to go up more so." Even then, most Dumpster-divers walk away with a warning.

But the police have harassed Food Not Bombs for serving food under the bridge at Main and Pierce. They tried to shut down the whole operation last year, the day before Thanksgiving.

"The cops came up and threatened to arrest us if we didn't leave," says Lyons. "We were screaming at them and we were saying, 'We're not going anywhere.' On top of that, 'Can you hear yourself? Do you realize how awful of a person you are, regardless of where the orders are coming from?' We ended up moving onto the sidewalk just to appease them. We were still able to get our food out."

Lyons says that shortly thereafter he went to the Web site of the Harris County Appraisal District to look up the area.

"Under that bridge, all the way, for the ten or 12 blocks it runs, it's all set aside by the city for health and recreation," he says. "I think we are both."

When the police came back a few weeks later, Lyons told them about his research. The officers never returned.

When Irish immigrant James McHenry signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787, he harbored broad hopes for his descendants in the States. Little did he know his great-great-grandson would end up homeless in the late 1970s, scavenging through Dumpsters for food.

"I had to go underground due to a very violent police beating in Portland, Oregon," says 47-year-old Keith McHenry. "I had to live out of Dumpsters."

The way he tells the story, he was beaten by two police officers in front of his apartment, solely because he had out-of-state plates, a "food for people, not for profit" bumper sticker and very long hair.

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