Volunteers at the Mills Memorial Thrift Auxiliary store are at the end of their wits.
Even after soldering their donation bin shut and replacing the lock on the store’s dumpster four times, volunteers are still cleaning up household garbage, unusable donations and needles left scattered across their parking lot.
Instead of dropping off donations during the store’s open hours, bags are left beside the now defunct bin and rummaged through overnight. When store staff took the extra measure to lock the garbage dumpster with a titanium chain — it was cut off again within a week.
On Wednesday, volunteers found clothing and garbage left sopping wet on the ground, several discarded needles, and a piece of the broken chain left dangling from the dumpster. The same day, another volunteer had to clean up after someone who had defecated behind the store.
“It’s very disheartening. Everybody who works here is a volunteer, and it’s like we’re the garbage patrol,” said volunteer Marilyn Bennett.
The store sells clothing to raise money for the Mills Memorial Hospital, and each year manages to raise close to $100,000 for health care equipment and bursaries for health care employees.
Staff estimate that about one third of the donations they receive aren’t considered usable and thrown out.
Then in September, RCMP arrested two men, a woman and a teenager at the store after finding ripped donation bags, clothing tossed around, and a group of people carrying items from the bags. They were arrested for mischief and released on Promise to Appear in Court.
So far the store has spent $260 on security measures, but local businesses have since offered their services for free.
Interim store manager Cecile Boehm said she believes people were breaking into the drop-off box and garbage bin to either steal donated items for resale, or to use the bins as a place to sleep.
“It used to happen at least once a week, especially in this weather,” she says. “It’s cold, it’s wet, and they’re looking for a dry place to go.”
With the recent deaths of two people found inside donation boxes in Vancouver and Toronto, hospital auxiliary volunteers are concerned for the safety of those who were seeking shelter in donation and garbage bins.
“We don’t want people dying in our garbage or drop-box, because it’s happened, and we don’t want to see it happen here,” Boehm said.
However, she said she was told a person would need a $1,000 wire cutter to break the titanium chain on the garbage bin.
“This is not homeless people, homeless people do not carry around heavy duty wire cutters,” Boehm said. “It’s people backing up their trucks with their household garbage and dropping it in.”
Staff did catch someone trying to do this, and after explaining that the garbage bin was private, not public, the man drove away — only to come back after hours and try again.
The Mills Memorial Thrift store isn’t the only one that’s been hit.
Last year, Terrace’s Salvation Army had concerns with break-ins to their donation bin and dumpster, and the situation has improved since the store upgraded their locks and security system.
Lt. Rick Apperson said recently it appears someone had tried to use a saw to break through the new locks.
This week, the Mills Memorial store will be upgrading their security to their dumpster and is considering installing a light and small camera to monitor the parking area.
“We’ve reached the end of our rope, really,” said Viviane Cameron, store coordinator. “I mean no one is paid, we’re all volunteers, but it’s hard to keep people when it’s just so ugly.”