“Scrapper,” a title forged on the streets, referring to anyone collecting various metals legally, or illegally, in the form of cans, the theft of automobile catalytic converters, various metal pipes, metal machinery & parts, and copper wire from abandoned buildings, scrap yards, or new building sites, for a profit. Urban Ore will attempt to give a rarely seen glimpse into the secret world of metal thieves in America. The project documents the day-to-day life of a small community of homeless people living under, and literally inside of a freeway off-ramp, who make their meager ends meet from illegally scrapping metal from abandoned, and active buildings in the San Francisco Bay area.
Located underneath a major freeway off-ramp is a homeless camp like no other. At this specific location are 4x4x20 foot storage spaces inside the freeway, providing secure, protected living for the lucky few who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or have waited their turn for a space to open. Six homeless people have formed a tight knit community here that supports one another with food, water, and friendship, and a source of income—scrapping.
A cold morning in San Francisco, one of the camp residence is plugged into the city grid running a light, space heater, and a radio. A friend stops by for a visit before hitting the streets. In the background the abandoned building where scrappers have been working can be seen.
The people here at the camp have managed to tap into the city's power supply to power their lights, radios, and other equipment. This isn't an everyday luxury for them. They have to use it sparingly. When the SFPD find their extension cord hooked up during occasional visits to the camp, they will cut the cord.
After a long session of dismantling electric motors for the precious copper wire, all the scrap is bagged and sent out to be sold. Due to recent regulations no one can sell scrap at legitimate yards without a car. The scrappers must sell to black market metal dealers who pay 30 percent less but ask no questions as to the metals origin.
Boudreaux, a veteran scrapper leaves the company of the others in the camp to privately strip down his secret find to avoid sharing the profit. After a night of dumpster diving behind different stores he amassed a large collection of mini electric transformers.
Steve, one of the veteran scrappers of the camp, Starts his day by lowering himself out of his freeway living space. He is the original occupant of this particular space. Upon discovering it he found the space sealed by welded iron bars and a metal plate. Taking the opportunity he cut through the bars, gained access to his new home, and sold the metal.
Sheriff's deputies have been raiding the camp recently looking for parol dodgers. Steve, a veteran scrapper and long time resident of the camp, waits ready to barricade himself in his hole as he watches a patrol car park near the encampment.
The homeless are extremely resourceful. They have many different water sources depending on the use. Steve taps into the city's water main at a fire hydrant to get water for cooking, and their pets.
Inside a 4'x4'x20' crawl space, Steve keeps his area very tidy. He says today was a messy day for him. His space is wired with electricity, powering his light and radio. The space rattles continuously as cars pass by overhead.
While working in the abandoned factory boiler room, police sirens are heard approaching the building. Local businesses have taken action in calling law enforcement when they hear or see anyone entering the old abandoned building.
Mike, a veteran scrapper has been doing this type of work for well over 10 years. When asked, he says it beats welfare. At current market prices for various metals he can make well more than welfare provides, and he doesn't have to play by the systems rules.
While waiting for his partners to show-up to an abandoned factory, Mike sifts through the dirt outside of the building entrance looking for scraps of non-ferrous metal. There is over 100lbs of metal chips in the two blue bags, and another pile growing to his left.
Steve, and another scrapper, who chose to remain nameless, work to remove one of many ventilation ducts from the roof of this abandoned factory. This, along with the rest of the scrap extracted from the abandoned building will be loaded into a truck and taken to a scrap yard to sold.
Loading the truck with the collected scrap is a group effort. It must be done quickly and efficiently. The more metal that gets hauled away the more money each person earns at the end of the day.
During a scrapping job in an abandoned factory, Boudreaux's finger was chopped off below the first joint. He was taken to the County hospital, where the surgeon did a hackneyed job of repairing his finger. Often is the case for the homeless at a county hospital.
Boudreaux, another of the camp's veteran scrappers gets help reapplying a bandage and splint. Recently he lost the tip of his finger at the first joint to a scrapping accident.
A wood burning BBQ is used to heat the previous night's leftovers, and water for coffee. The camp inhabitants all join together for breakfast and coffee before heading out for a long day of scrapping.
Homeless from neighboring camps gather at this camp after hearing word of a highly profitable scrap source. One scrapper calls his contact to verify the information.
This building has been sealed up many times by the owner. Each time the scrappers make a new way in. When asked, they told me, "Big deal, let them seal it up. We'll make another hole."
Inside the boiler room of an abandoned factory, Steve works to loosen and feed a pipe through a metal bulkhead.
Steve, one of the newer additions to the camp, helps to scrap the boiler room. He is one of the few scrappers who openly admits to hating his current life style, and wants to earn enough money scrapping to get out, clean up, and live a better life.
The scrappers had a mysterious bag of a 20 foot long oxidized solid copper braided cable. They wouldn't tell me where it came from. They wanted to move it quickly. The cable earned them $130. They later discovered that the scrapyard had cheated them by offsetting the digital scale by 8 pounds. A common practice between scrapyards and scrappers not paying close attention.
On this particular day one of the main goals is to extract as much of the metal pipefrom the abandoned factory as possible. The scrappers are slowly cleaning out the the boiler room. As far as they're concerned they're doing nothing wrong. The building is going to be torn down any way. They're saving the owner time by doing the clean-up for them. "If they don't like it, hire us." One of the scrappers tells me.
Even the homeless have pass-times. Before leaving the camp for a day of scrapping in an abandoned factory, Mike and Steve grab golf clubs and hit a few balls into the neighboring lagoon.
After a hard day of scrapping, Steve, lays down in a rat's nest of detritus back at camp to ponder his situation. New to the camp he lives in a make shift tent amongst a pile of garbage.
Mike sifts through the trash behind an auto wrecking yard for any type of metal the can find. With one bag already full of random scrap, Mike gathers all of the random nuts and bolts into a pile while his partner looks through the remnants of burnt tires to extract the steel belting.