Social Medium: Proud to survive without help

Sandra Galindo

Claudia Acevedo walks fast down Park Boulevard, near Balboa Park. Her fragile figure is unmistakable: in one hand she holds a plastic bag where she collects recyclables quickly and on the other hand she holds a picker, a metal tool with a clasp at the end.

She moves quickly, choosing what she needs. The 40-year-old Latina wears a baseball hat to protect her face from the sun. She is pretty, looks clean, and is homeless.

When she approaches the trash cans near a bus stop, the people waiting there stare at her.

She wears a big sign that reads, “Abuse nor intimidation against women is not OK, especially from the police.”

When asked why she carries that sign, she said that on a March 5 she was at the dumpster next to the R-Building entrance at City College collecting recyclables, when a City police officer saw her. She said that he smashed the dumpster with his hand, and yelled at her, “What are you doing?”

“I can take you to jail if I want to,” Acevedo said the officer said to her in front of students who gather there.

“It’s so easy for someone like this officer to humiliate someone like me,” Acevedo said. “He called me a thief.”

She said the students were astonished at the officer’s actions.

“This is the life of a female recycler. They bully us,” said Acevedo, referring to campus police.

She said it’s so easy for the officers to arrest someone like her.

“They know I am not a criminal. We come from poor and working-class families,” Acevedo said. “What bothers them is that I tell them that I have more education than they do.”

According to federal and state laws, it’s not a crime to collect recyclables from a public place, but it is illegal to do so on private property.

Fifteen years ago, Acevedo, a legal immigrant from Mexico, was a student at Center City and took summer classes at City College.

She was a math and Spanish tutor at Mesa College for four semesters, ten hours per week. She finished her general education and was planning to be a teacher.

But by then she had accumulated a lot of student debt, and was not able to keep up with the payments.

Her personal life was also unraveling.

She decided to divorce an abusive husband, and then lost her income from various jobs.

After her savings were exhausted she was not able to support herself or her 13-year-old son. She sent him to live with her mother in a town in Baja California Sur and has been surviving on her own since then.

She ended up in a downtown shelter, but the language and actions of some of the homeless residents intimidated her. She was afraid all the time.

Acevedo decided to take her chances sleeping under a bench on the street.

“At first I didn’t even have a blanket,” she recalls. “I didn’t know who to trust.”

She began to collect recyclables to get some money.

“You help clean up the community and you feel that you supporting yourself with dignity,” she said. “But all of that changes when you’re told you are a thief and threatened with arrest.”

She said police harass people who look dirty, poor and carrying a plastic bag.

“The way the police justify it is that they say, ‘We received a call,’ or ‘You match the description of a person reported.’ And they send five officers to stop me.”

According to the campus police dispatch, whenever there are incidents like this, “They give them a citation and then they take them to court. It’s up to the officer’s discretion to let them leave.”

Acevedo is proud to survive without any public help. On a good day she earns $20; on a bad one, $5. She sends $20 dollars every week to her son.

“I have to walk to so many dumpsters to get my money.”

She said that although society looks down on people like her, with the recession, more will be collecting on the streets.

Despite her hard life, Acevedo considers herself lucky.

Her destiny was not to be confined to the streets of San Diego. Acevedo found a job that will allow her to gain some dignity without being harassed in the streets.

She has just been hired at a recycling center to work 30 to 35 hours a week.

Acevedo is not the only one struggling to survive on the streets and that is exactly why her story is so important.

“May God bless those who give a job to the women who want to work,” Acevedo said