In recent weeks, deaths from donation bins have been a frequent topic in the news, including a 34-year-old man in West Vancouver. This has prompted all kinds of responses. The municipality sealed donation bins in search of safer options. At least one charity has pulled their clothing donation bins and at least one manufacturer has stopped making the bins, instead focussing on improving the bins.
This all seems like quite a bit of action. However, and perhaps most importantly, removing or closing the bins doesn’t really solve the problem. It’s also important to note, there are costs attached to all of this. There are the costs of charities losing revenue from not getting donations, there are the costs of redesigning or manufacturing new bins, there are the environmental costs of some people undoubtedly garbaging their used clothing in absence of donation bins. At least one hospital charity said pulling the bins would mean a 25 per cent loss of fundraising costs. This creates a bit of a trolley problem. If you don’t remove the bins, it’s only a matter of time before someone else dies inside a bin and that’s obviously not acceptable. If you do remove the bins, the cost to the charities could just as well cost lives on the other end, for example, if it means poorer care or older medical equipment.
Removing or “fixing” the bins is little different from putting bandages on plague sores: it attempts to deal with the symptoms but not the underlying cause.
Assuming the perspective of a homeless person, currently, they’re faced with a choice of climbing into a potentially deadly clothing donation bin or facing the consequences of not climbing in a donation bin. Given the deaths inside clothing bins, clearly, some are willing to risk it. That’s the real problem here; some homeless people are so desperate that they’re willing to risk dying by climbing in.
From that perspective, removing or retrofitting the bins doesn’t make any sense. If by removing the bins, the consequence is homeless people freezing to death because they don’t have adequate clothing or going to even more extreme measures, all we’ve done is displaced the problem. Surely the logical, or at the very least compassionate, response to people climbing into clothing donation bins is not to incur a bunch of costs to make bins less accessible but rather to provide clothing or shelter?
Choosing instead to “homeless proof” donation bins not only seems quite rude to homeless people, essentially saying they can’t be trusted with a clothing donation bin, but it’s also about the most American solution possible to the problem. Then again, maybe that’s just the way we’re heading.