Trash Prophets with Mark Spiro – Episode 13

Trash Prophets

Mark Spiro, award-winning songwriter, producer, recording artist, and founder of Trash Prophets, joins host Robert Strock to discuss Spiro’s work with the unsheltered. Trash Prophets is a mobile recycling organization that helps train the unsheltered in collecting recyclables for a profit. In Spiro’s work with the homeless, he’s learned that many factors come into play, keeping people homeless. If they make too much money, they can lose the few benefits they get. Taxes and other laws may take what wages or inheritance they may have at their disposal. It turns into a repeating cycle. Yet, the unsheltered are often people who’ve hit the bottom and developed humility and openness that accepts people in their darkest hours. They’re not afraid of the bottom because they’ve already seen it.

Spiro discusses his findings that the majority of the unsheltered are ready and willing to work to improve their lives with great motivation. Many times all they need is an opportunity and an infrastructure to support them. Spiro’s wish and goal is to use Trash Prophets to launch people into permanent programs that include permanent housing and job training as a gateway program. They provide the infrastructure, meeting the “prophets” where they are, whether it’s a park or underpass to pick up the recycling and help them earn a wage. They work on connecting with people, seeing them for who they are, yet letting them make decisions about their own lives. It’s all about providing the infrastructure that can give them a gateway to the next step in their journey.

Mentioned in this episode
Trash Prophets
Pay Forward
California Redemption Value
Brilliant Corners
Alpha Project
The Global Bridge Foundation

Note: Below, you’ll find timecodes for specific sections of the podcast. To get the most value out of the podcast, I encourage you to listen to the complete episode. However, there are times when you want to skip ahead or repeat a particular section. By clicking on the timecode, you’ll be able to jump to that specific section of the podcast

Announcer: (00:02)
The Missing Conversation, Episode 13.

Mark Spiro: (00:05)
Trash Prophets. The “prophets” is spelled PROPHETS. And that’s inspired by putting a dirty word like trash next to an elevated being, which I think a lot of these people are.

Announcer: (00:22)
On this podcast. We will propose critical new strategies to address world issues, including homelessness, immigration, amongst several others, and making a connection to how our individual psychology contributes and can help transform the dangers that we face. We will break from traditional thinking, as we look at our challenges from a freer and more independent point of view. Your host Robert Strock has had 45 years of experience as a psychotherapist, author, and humanitarian, and has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation, and inquiry born from working on his own challenges,

Robert Strock: (01:00)
A very warm welcome to you all. And thank you very much for rejoining us today. We have a very special guest who expresses himself in an extremely simple way, but yet it’s extraordinary in the way that he gives to the unsheltered community. He fits the bill perfectly as a missed conversation and how we can care for those that need it the most. Mark Spiro is an iconic American songwriter. He’s an established award-winning producer, recording artist with a career that spans over two decades, among his many accomplishments are 45 gold and platinum records and eight solo albums, his songs and his productions have been represented on records that have sold over a hundred million worldwide. In 2015, Mark started helping a friend with a new startup called Pay Forward, which allocated a small percentage of Visa transactions to be given to chosen non-profits. He decided to stop talking about it and to execute.

Mark Spiro: (02:12)
He started Trash Profits, a mobile recycling initiative to support the unsheltered, to streamline recycling of bottles in cans and turn it in for the California CRV that is California Redemption Value, to give to the homeless that are working in the program. Mark now has a team that collects an average of $37.50 cents per man, per day and collects $20 to $30 of CRV donations per man, per day, as well. The profits keep their money. Trash Profits is a proven gateway job that transitions the homeless to a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. Trash Profits is a social that combines the environment with homelessness to create a circular economy that pays for itself. In reality, there are 1,500 bottles and 4,500 cans consumed, per second. In the United States, there are 65 billion water bottles. Unrecyclable each year in the United States. That’s $50 million by 2035. There will be more bottles in the ocean than there are fish. So I’d like to introduce you to our guest. Who’s really putting his body, his mouth, his heart, you know, all together, in and out, and in and out of trash cans, in and out of wherever he needs to go to help his fellow brothers and sisters. Hi Mark, it’s truly great to have you here.

Mark Spiro: (03:48)
Hi, Robert, I am truly grateful to be here just to get to introduce Trash Profits to your audience. Thank you. That’s a privilege and I feel like the lucky one.

Robert Strock: (03:59)
Well, I would, I would say that luck in, uh, synergy and generosity and creativity, devotion self-sacrifice, you’ve definitely ordered it. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about Trash Profits?

Mark Spiro: (04:16)
Sure. Uh, the best way to explain it is mobile recycling. Um, Trash Profits recruits the homeless to ride our branded e-bikes and our cargo trailers to pick up their bottles and cans from like residential drops, apartments, businesses, and schools, and our roving trucks pick up their recycling, weigh it and pay it on the spot. This helps get rid of homeless encampments because encampments, uh, form always around a recycling station, since that’s the most immediate source of income for a homeless person, it also addresses the shopping cart problem because you don’t have to store all your bottles and cans in the shopping cart while you push it an average of three miles in order to get your redemption value. So our trucks meet you or our bikes meet you, and we pick up your recycling on the spot. We weigh it and we pay it right there. And just by streamlining that part of it, not having to go to a recycle station, our recyclers make about three times as much as the average guy.

Robert Strock: (05:26)
So please enhance and spell for our audience Trash Prophets, because I don’t think it’s intuitively obvious how you mean it or how it’s spelled yeah.

Mark Spiro: (05:38)
Uh, Trash Prophets. The “profits” is spelled PROPHETS. And that’s inspired by putting a dirty word like trash next to an elevated being, which I think a lot of these people are. It seems to me that every, every candidate or recruit that I meet has been through the one thing we’re all afraid of, and that is being left homeless or being left alone. And if you look at Moses Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, they’re all prophets and they’re also some pretty homeless wiseguys. And we love putting those two things together.

Robert Strock: (06:19)
Yeah. I, I think that is so profound for our listener and for ourselves to keep contemplating that those that have been homeless or really in a sense choosing in some of these times to be homeless and to embrace that humility. And in that humility, be able to send a message to the world that I have every feeling that your program, both as it is and as it’s designed to be, let’s say integrated into any receptive unsheltered program blows the image of the unsheltered. It shows the heart and the soul and the sameness that’s inside all of us. And in a sense, you could say puts clothes on all of us or takes the clothes off of all of us.

Mark Spiro: (07:16)
That’s the thing, that’s it, I’m not by nature a do-gooder type, but I’ve, I’ve found that the best way to deal with my problems like regret and depression or restlessness and discontent is when I’m doing something for someone else. And in this case, I just kind of made a goal and then let the universe help me figure it out. And you’re the one who, who taught me how to access my friendly mind and inquire. Um, what’s the next indicated thing I should do? Well, that question kept bringing me back to Trash Prophets. I would get in my truck and I’d follow one of the guys and, and see where he was going with his recycling. I’d buy it from him and take it there myself. And it just started to turn over one more guy, one more girl, one more story, one more crazy human being.

Robert Strock: (08:13)
So tell us a bit more about why you really experience the people that you’re helping as prophets. You know, it, it’s a very profound paradox when we think of ourselves becoming more humble and not being so full of ourselves and, and then support the capacities that are in there to come out. So I’m really looking forward to you elaborating on that and maybe sharing a story or two.

Mark Spiro: (08:45)
Well, all you gotta do is tell the truth. Uh, very few people, including myself, could live behind a gas station or under a bench with no food, no money it’s, um, every religion and even 12 step programs talk about living one day at a time, or being in total detachment from material things. And if anybody’s got that down, it’s the homeless, they’re detached. And they live one day at a time. Um, they don’t worry about politics or taxes or the pandemic or retirement. They have no economic insecurity because that’s all gone. They’ve lived through the horror of losing everything and they’ve got something to say about it. They have a voice. And if we were able to empower them and elevate them to hear that voice, I think that’d be transformative for everybody. To the the second part of the question, our very first Trash Prophet was Peter Ramirez.

Mark Spiro: (09:53)
He is a handsome guy, 55, like six foot four, walks like a ballet dancer. He is a master recycler. And um, now he trains our guys to define good routes. Um, good trash days, how to crush aluminum. And who’s paying the most per pound for plastic and aluminum. He’s an artist at the dumpster dive. He’s been homeless for 12 years and his job, his last job was flying a helicopter for a news channel, doing the traffic reports. And somehow he got himself into a new relationship with alcoholism and got in trouble, lost his job, lost his wife and his mom, even got a restraining order on him. And let me tell you what he’s like now, he’s found peace with his mother, he’s sober. He got his GR general relief, which is 261 bucks a month. He got dental insurance that he’s paying for to replace his two front teeth.

Mark Spiro: (10:57)
He’s got an apartment through a company called Brilliant Corners. It’s kind of a section 8 thing. It’s actually $28 a month up in Panorama City. And do Trash Prophets have something to do with this? I think so for me, he’s turned into a prince, but here’s the kicker. If he gets a regular job, he has to pay back the GR the $261 a month. And if he gets a regular job, he won’t qualify for the apartment anymore. He also has a tax lien from an inheritance. He got 11 years ago for 3,000 bucks, but the penalties and interest have gone all the way to $6,000. So when we opened up a new bank account, the government or the California Franchise Tax Board zeros his account, but they can only do that once a year and they’ve already done it. So we’re okay right now.

Mark Spiro: (11:47)
And it was only for 60 bucks, but it was his only 60 bucks. So as much as we’re grateful for these programs, you can see why the homeless stay homeless. If they’ve got a bank garnishment, if they’ve got a tax lien, if they’ve got a suspended license, if they’ve got a past warrant, all these things put people in a ditch and keep them homeless. Now through all this we’ve gotten so close. I mean, we, I can hardly articulate it. I mean, when you share the worst of things with another person and make that connection, nothing brings people together closer than that. And I must say, he’s become my very best friend. Um, I can count on him for anything and he can count on me for anything. I think that’s just what happens when you get to the bottom of it. And that means a whole lot of different things when I say the bottom of it. Um, yeah.

Robert Strock: (12:42)
And what, what qualities would you say emanate most that allow you to say something so extraordinary that he’s your best friend? W, w, what kind of characteristics or qualities move you?

Mark Spiro: (12:58)
Well, you could probably tell me better than I could, um, why I love this guy and why the connection is so deep. I think it’s because we have no secrets to keep anymore. There’s no game to play, no angled run. We’ve both fallen down. We’ve both been wounded. We both have been ashamed. There’s no status, there’s no competition. I think we’re connected to each other in a way that just doesn’t allow for laziness for lack of a better word. If he texts me and I, I don’t dare not text him back no matter what it is. So I think we’re both looking to be better at life. We have a common goal and it’s to do something that has meaning, and that, that makes us responsible to each other and Trash Prophets has meaning for us. Um, and I’m not talking about business most of the time, we’re, we’re cracking up, actually laughing over the condition we’re in, life can be pretty funny when you’re wide open and digging through the trash. Oh, here it is. Have a look at, you know, the movie, the Revenant. I don’t know if you saw it, but he said, uh, oh, you think I’m afraid of death? Well, I’ve already done it. And, and the worst has happened to these people. They have dreams just like we do.

Robert Strock: (14:25)
Yeah, yeah. That, that mixture of humor and humility. And as you said, so eloquently, having somebody that’s already done it, somebody that’s already gone to the bottom, it can relate to anybody, anybody’s pain, and being a therapist and having gone through a six-year period of hell myself helped me more than any training I ever had. And so there’s such a parallel that the general population doesn’t really understand the capacities that are optimized, or let’s say given a chance when you’ve actually gone through a very serious pain, unimaginable pain, then it allows that possibility of identifying with everyone. Whereas the normal, uh, folks that, uh, are living almost everywhere are, are spending their whole life trying to avoid that. Yeah. It’s like, let’s not talk about death. Let’s not talk about illness. Let’s do everything we can to, to focus on success and sexiness. And instead, they’re in touch with something that includes a broken heart. And for those that are strong enough, obviously, it’s not every single person that goes through, but for those that are strong enough that they can become leaders of a different kind.

Mark Spiro: (15:52)
You’re so right. And that’s exactly what they do. And I think that that’s what makes Trash Prophets run is, you know, I can tell you, you know, we can pick up, you know, each guy makes $37.50 a day and we can do about $22,000 a month with 20 riders. And they can split that, my, I can go through all that stuff, but what makes it work are, is relationship and community. And I am flabbergasted how generous these homeless are with each other. I mean, Pietro will always share his cookies and Peter’s always the first one in the dumpster and it’s enlightening cause they’re enlightened. And there’s the saying before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. And after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water, it’s the doing of it. That makes it work. It’s phenomenal. Last week, you and I, we talked about making micropayments, making micropayments to our friendly mind or our higher self, and how that gives us the capacity to just do the right thing.

Robert Strock: (16:53)
Yeah. And I personally, it reminds me of when I visited India and a couple of third-world countries and compared the general, uh, people that were impoverished and how amazingly alive and caring and generous they were, and the sense of community was just assumed in a truly profound way. There, they looked more alive, they looked more sensitive and it’s because they were, and you compare that to some extent with the poor ends of the community, where they’re still exposed to all this wealth where it’s harder to just drop to the bottom like these folks have. Whereas if you go to the really impoverished places in the world, or from that matter, if you look at tragedies like a fire where everybody’s houses burnt down, or, or some kind of tornado where there they’ve been wiped out, then they experienced the bottom and there’s something so powerful about experiencing the bottom.

Mark Spiro: (17:57)
It’s powerful. And I don’t know of anything that’s more transformative than crapping out and hitting bottom. And you see so much shame, but on the flip side, you see people at that that have a kind of grace, the kind of freedom that you only get through losing everything, but we buy self-help books and go see life coaches and all kinds of shit in order to have those qualities of grace and detachment and freedom and restitution with, with your past and, and surrender to the way things are one moment at a time. And they’re doing that. I’ve got, I’ve got one rider named rooster, who has been in prison 15 years, and he’s only 35. So he’s been in most of his life. And he’s so institutionalized that he thinks like a thief. He’s always got an end game, but the transformation I’ve seen in him over a year is remarkable. Um, he’s on time, he’s doing it. And, um, a year ago I wouldn’t have believed it.

Robert Strock: (19:09)
Yeah. One of the incredible beauties, because I’ve had the, uh, let’s say good fortune of meeting a large percentage of the largest homeless providers in Los Angeles County and some in San Francisco as well, is that when I mentioned Trash Prophets as an expansion to their program, there are, there isn’t anyone that doesn’t intuitively get that 90% of the people that they’re caring for are capable of raising their dignity, raising their self-esteem, their self-sufficiency with that kind of hard work. And the motivation level from everything I have seen is, is quite high when they’re given the chance and the support, support infrastructure. So they don’t have to do it all by foot. And just how that little bit of help. So . . .

Mark Spiro: (20:06)

Robert Strock: (20:06)
Trash Prophets really has a possibility of not only being the the sole organization, the extraordinary organization that it is but also being a part of the nationwide strategy of dealing with homelessness itself.

Mark Spiro: (20:24)
For sure. I mean, I’m a believer in that. That’s my huge wish and goal is to redo the entire CRV system. So it benefits the homeless and the underserved, and it really costs nothing. Then it’s not hard to do and it’s wasted money. Anyway, it’s money you’ve already spent, it’s already paid for. No one has to give up the thing it’s, um, it fits right into tiny homes. It fits right into Alpha Project. It’s a gateway job for the homeless to take the very next transition step and reach a life that’s sustainable.

Robert Strock: (20:55)
Exactly, exactly. And the story that you’ve told me about, uh, how long the value has been a nickel, I’d love for you to really tell our audience and really I’m hoping out there that we not only have people who want to make the suggestion and call the Congress, local congressional person and Senator to see how the people that on the very bottom cannot only bring themselves up but can clean up our cities at the same time. Absolutely. So give us a sense of, of, of the history there.

Mark Spiro: (21:37)
Yes. Well, in, in 1985, I think it might’ve been, it’s in the mid, mid, mid-eighties there, uh, California passed what they call a bottle bill, uh, the CRV, and that is to get people to return their bottles and cans, plastic, you know, and get a nickel back. And that was the recycling initiative. And if you took inflation into it, that nickel would be at least 15 cents today, most people don’t bother with it. They just chuck their bottles and cans and, um, and put it in the blue bin and, they think they’re recycling, but they’re losing money. And just by raising it to 10 cents instead of five, like they’ve done in Oregon and Michigan, all of a sudden, if you’re doing, if you can collect 700 units a day, you’re making like 75 bucks and that’s, you know, that’s close, that’s almost a living wage that becomes something you can deal with.

Mark Spiro: (22:31)
You can get dinner with that, you can get lunch with that. Remember a homeless person has no overhead. Also when you have people begging on the, on-ramp of the freeway, they’re doing that because they make more money doing that than recycling because I talked to all of them and they said, they said to me, well, I’d go ride with you, but I can’t do that because I make more money sitting here. 10 cents makes a lot of that go away. I’m gone, not as much begging on the street, that’s because, you know, recycling is the most immediate dollar for the homeless. That’s the most immediate way to get some money is to recycle, even as difficult as it is. But if that were 10 cents, I think it would help a lot of the homeless situation in Los Angeles. That’s a big thing to say, but it’s, it’d be huge for, for the homeless.

Robert Strock: (23:21)
Yeah. And from my vantage point, when we’re looking at the crisis of plastics, it makes all the sense in the world for it to be a quarter, give 10 to 15 cents to the homeless community that is set up for special programs. Anyone listening out there that can help this happen, please, when you get Mark’s information or my information, please reach out because this really has the capacity to take plastics out of the ocean, to clean up whatever major cities get involved through the homeless programs and to create that self-esteem and to create that sense of well-being and a sense of community and communities are being designed right now that if, even if they only made $70 a day, they’d be able to live in a mini home and be able to live a lifestyle and be a hell of a lot happier than a lot of people I’ve seen through the years as my clients. And so it’s, it’s really, it would be a gift to society. It would be obviously a gift to the people there, but it also would be a gift to the survival of the ocean, the world.

Mark Spiro: (24:31)
Yeah. And if you do the math 1,500 bottles per second, that’s 5.4 million bottles consumed in an hour and it’s 4,500 cans, aluminum cans per second. And if we just streamline the infrastructure and raise it a nickel, the change would be monumental. There’s one prophet I work with, Lakeesha, and I hope all you guys go on Instagram, the Trash Prophet, Instagram, and take and get to know her a little bit, just this incredible and wonderful woman. Um, she sleeps and Robert knows where this is in Woodley Park, under a bench there. Now she sleeps there because the only place that she feels safe, she can’t go like on Ventura Boulevard here on a busy street. So she goes to the park, she sleeps there and gets up in the morning and she walks a couple miles to, um, to Victory Boulevard where she starts dumpster diving. After that, she has to take her shopping cart all the way to Van Owen and turn in her bottles and cans so she can get, let’s say five bucks.

Mark Spiro: (25:37)
What we did is we now meet her where she sleeps and every Wednesday and Friday, we pick it up from her, pay her on the spot. So there goes the pain in the ass of walking 3.3 miles. She doesn’t have to sleep near an encampment or add an encampment where things can get a little bit dicey for a woman that’s for sure. And just connecting with people, going direct to buy their bottles and cans and pay them on the spot is what Trash Prophet does. You can find us on your GPS. You can find us with air tags, or you can text us. And those that don’t have that kind of technology. And a lot of them don’t, we will find you cause we’re, we’re roaming the streets folks. And um, if you want to engage there you go.

Robert Strock: (26:22)
And what, what do you think the effect is? Or what do you notice from her, her, with her being able to experience the well-being of community support, because you, you talk about the profundity of hitting the bottom and then being blessed or with communities, for, of a person like you or a community of folks like, like you have, what does that, how does that affect your spirit?

Mark Spiro: (26:52)
I think it’s life-changing and it’s life-changing for all of us, but it’s been a tough one for her. She’s got a tough deck of cards. Um, Lakeesha wants to be a dancer and she’s got that dream and she may become a professional dancer. I don’t know. She’s got a father that is violent. And after her all the time, he used to pimp her out. And I know that he was abusive with her himself. So I know that she carries around all kinds of fear and pain, but I can tell you without a doubt, that in the hours that she’s with us and we take her in, she’s safe at that moment. And she belongs to us and that’s probably as good as it gets for now. She’s got a place to go. She’s got a bike, she got a truck, she got a cargo trailer and people, people to be with that’s where the change happens.

Mark Spiro: (27:43)
Being with people that care about you. I mean, I go through changes as much as Lakeesha does, just so you know that we’re not in the business of getting anybody sober. We’re not in the business of telling people how to run their lives are, and we’re not here to judge and we’re not here to tell you how to spend your money. Got a bike, got a truck, let’s go. And if you ask for help, you’ll get it. But you gotta be on time. And that’s a big thing, especially for people that haven’t had a job in a long time, the cool thing is you can come and work for an hour, three hours, five hours, whatever you want to do that also makes it really forgiving and friendly. Um, just gotta be on time, you gotta be where you say you’re going to be.

Robert Strock: (28:24)
Yeah. And having a community of support to do that. Yeah. But the one, the one thing that a message that you emanate, you know, whenever you share a story is about, about the community that you’re working in. First of all, Mark is really somebody that is willing to put his body, uh, I guess you might say literally, in the trashcan, uh, many, many, many times. But the thing that I would like to really, as we move toward the end of this episode, highlight when you see the next person that’s unsheltered, see if you can remind yourself, I don’t know their story. I have no idea. I have no idea what kind of abuse, what kind of abandonment, what kind of hell they’ve been in? And for me to even begin to judge, may I catch that early?

Mark Spiro: (29:19)
You just said everything I wished I said, awesome. That’s exactly it, Robert, that’s the insight that I’m talking about.

Robert Strock: (29:27)
So how can people get a hold of you in, in whatever way they want to support? And I just want to say, as I unravel this question, I’m really hoping that there’s a real estate management firm that is listening right now because the idea of putting Trash Prophet cans in those buildings and having a route and a pickup could make this a very affordable wage. And at the same time do such a service because it would inspire people to say, oh, I’ll just throw this plastic can, or this well, this bottle in the regular trash, cause I don’t care. But when they know, yeah, it hits a sweet spot in the person that’s living in the apartment that this is going to be giving to somebody too and the planet it’ll make all the difference in the world. So how can people get a hold of you to try to encourage this kind of support and giving?

Mark Spiro: (30:16)
Yeah, well, I think that the best way to do it is, is Trash Prophets on Instagram. You can go there and message me anytime you want on Instagram, or you can go to and we’re there. And there’s a video there for you to look at. You can meet some of these prophets and get to know what I’m talking about. Um, it’s pretty fun too.

Robert Strock: (30:37)
Yeah, well Mark, bringing your creativity and your music and your love of music to your love of people that are suffering is truly a moving place that I wish on all of us. I wish for it to deepen in myself and I honor you as being someone who’s really put your, all these levels of yourself together. And may we all do that more and more to help our trouble doors.

Mark Spiro: (31:03)
Thank you. Thank you. And it’s, uh, more than a pleasure, more than a pleasure to just, just be here. So thanks, Robert.

Robert Strock: (31:11)
Thank you.

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