British Columbia

'I don't get paid, I work for tips only': Meet the man keeping Kamloops' streets clean

Ben James does a pretty thankless job: seven days a week, he’s out picking up garbage and cleaning the streets of downtown Kamloops.

Local businesses planning to pitch in a toonie a day to pay Ben James for services

Ben James works seven days a week picking up litter from the streets of Kamloops. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Ben James does a pretty thankless job: seven days a week, he's out picking up garbage and cleaning the streets of downtown Kamloops.

James, who grew up in the city and once ran for mayor but fell on hard times, isn't usually paid for his efforts. Local businesses are trying to change that.

"I go around picking up garbage because, first and foremost, I believe that it should be done — there's litter everywhere," said James.

"There's just so much trash and it only takes five minutes for a clean area to get dirty again."

Nothing is forcing him to be out there rain or shine, James emphasized, but he does the job because he cares. He's been doing it for years. 

"I don't get paid, I work for tips only," reads part of the sign he carries with him.

"I think it’s important and I don't like to beg, I like to work," says Ben James about picking up litter. This is the sign he carries with him. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

A toonie a day for clean streets

Daryl Smeeton, who works at a local business, sees James cleaning the area every day with his broom and dustpan.

He's started collecting money from others in the community to pay James for his services.

"We're trying to get local companies to essentially sponsor [James] so we'll all be donating every day," Smeeton said.

"We're looking for a toonie a day, five days, a week from local businesses."

Smeeton has already had dozens of responses and collected several hundred dollars.

Daryl Smeeton (left) is working to raise money from local businesses to pay Ben James (right) for his services. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

James says he's touched and surprised by the fundraising efforts.

"To know that there's actually that many people that do see and do care is truly beautiful," he told CBC Daybreak Kamloops' Jenifer Norwell.

The stigma of working in the streets

James has encountered mixed reactions from passersby as he picks up garbage. Some show fear or hostility, others don't give him a second look.

"I used to joke that every time I hold my enchanted broom, I become invisible — there's a lot of people who just walk past and say nothing," he said.

He hopes his story will help change perceptions. He said he's not homeless and lives in a bachelor suite with his cat.

"When people perceive you to be a scary street person, it's so hard to make friends and find love," he said. 

"I don't think I'm a scary person at all. If you come talk to me, you'll find that I'm actually quite affable." 

'So burnt out'

He had a pretty conventional upbringing, he said, and described himself as a nice kid who went to university to get into the oil industry, then got a fairly well-paying job. 

"I found that I was just so grossly unhappy in my day-to-day, I serve nobody truly," he said.

"I got so burnt out that I just got depressed, started taking drugs, did a bunch of heroin once, and then I lost everything good in my life."

It might seem surprising, he said, but he finds purpose in the work he now does for the community.

"It's unorthodox but I am actually truly happy in a weird way," he said.

"A man must have love and purpose in his life. This gives me purpose and love, to a degree, because there's so many kind folks here and it serves people."

With files from Daybreak Kamloops and Jenifer Norwell