The U.S. is home to seven of the top 10 richest people in the world – including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index. But it’s also home to over 550,000 homeless people, including trash pickers like Jake Orta.
Orta lives three blocks from Zuckerberg’s $10 million home in San Francisco, and he makes his living picking through the billionaire’s garbage, according to a story by British online newspaper the Independent.
Orta is a war veteran who became homeless but now lives in government-subsidized housing, making about $30 to $40 a week selling lightly used designer jeans, Nike running shoes or bicycles – whatever he can find in the trash discarded by the ultra-rich in Zuckerberg’s neighborhood.
The neighborhood is made up of homes worth at least $3 million, a sharp contrast to Orta’s single-window studio apartment nearby.
The 56-year-old considers himself a treasure-hunter, marveling at the costly items that get dumped in the trash bin.
“It just amazes me what people throw away. You never know what you will find,” he told a journalist from the Independent.
Last month, he found a discarded box of silver goblets, dishes and plates. Among other recent finds have been iPads, wristwatches, phones and marijuana – which he said he smoked.
Orta won’t sell his most prized find — an assemblage of newspapers from around the world recording the major events of World War II.
After saving trashed items from their fate in the landfill, Orta sells the goods at markets in the city. Men’s clothing sells the best, he said, as men seem to be less picky about where the clothes came from. Children’s toys are a hard sell, as parents are wary of toys that came from the garbage.
Trash picking is illegal in California, as the contents rolled out in trash bins belong to the garbage collection companies. But police rarely enforce this law.
While San Francisco has a thriving recycling program, the city also sees valuable goods regularly thrown in the trash by its burgeoning young, affluent population.
“We have a lot of trash of convenience,” Robert Reed, spokesman for Recology, told the Independent.
“You’ve got more and more tech people here, and this city is moving faster and faster. These people have short attention spans. Some discard items that ought to be repurposed through a thrift shop,” he said.
The trash picking profession exposes the extreme wealth gap in affluent U.S. cities, as the rich get richer and the poor take what they can get.
According to a new report by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, the top 0.1% of the U.S. population holds nearly 20% of the country’s wealth, while the top 10% owns more than 70% of the wealth.
In the past four decades, the share of the wealthiest 400 Americans has tripled, while the share of the bottom 60% has shrunk from 5.7% in 1987 to 2.1% in 2014, according to Fortune.
“The wealthy are becoming wealthier… and there’s good reason to think it’s happening at the expense of everyone else,” Christopher Ingraham from The Washington Post wrote in February.