St. Vincent Depaul: Turning Trash into Cash to Help People in the Crisis of Poverty

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, Oregon, offers a unique and innovative approach to providing social services to people in the crisis of poverty. Decades ago they got creative about how to fund their services. They needed to be able to pay for the food and housing services and the people getting those services needed jobs. And so, the organization began turning others’ trash into revenue-producing businesses. They now employ 450 people in a whole fleet of recycling businesses – from resale at the thrift store, to the largest mattress recycling firm in the nation. They sell scrap metal and make beautiful new products from recycled glass. Their profits provide everything from affordable housing to veterans job training, to veterinary services for pets of people who find themselves homeless.

It is a very successful business model. Not only is St. Vincent de Paul Lane County’s largest human services provider—serving more than 70,000 people a year—it is also one of the county’s largest employers with 450 workers, a significant number of whom are ex-offenders, formerly chronically homeless, and people with special needs. These jobs pay good wages and offer health insurance, providing health security for hundreds of families who otherwise might not have it.

Terry McDonald, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul, is known to some as "the junkyard king," because he spends so much of his time trying to turn America's waste into cash. The organization’s mattress recycling has become a big business that supports services for low-income families. With one facility in Oakland and another in Oregon, it recycles about 175,000 mattresses a year. McDonald explains that about 90 percent of a mattress can be recycled into something else and sold. Some material is recycled into commercial carpet and some into carpet pad. They also use it in their line of dog and cat beds.

All in all the recycling enterprises raise enough money to cover more than half of the Oregon charity's $24-million-a-year budget. "The model is that if there's an opportunity to add value to something, let's do it," says McDonald.

That model is getting lots of attention these days, as nonprofits struggle to survive. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given McDonald a half-million dollars to spread the word. He's already helped set up mattress-recycling operations in Orlando, Fla., and Bridgeport, Conn.

 
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