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Neighbors rally to help homeless vet

After a disparaging post appeared on Facebook Wednesday criticizing homeless veteran Steve Pitzl for digging in a dumpster to collect soda cans and bottles, Medford residents jumped to his defense, then rallied to collect cans and clothing donations for him.

Pitzl, 59, has been trying to find housing through a HUD program and collects cans to meet his basic needs. Not long after his personal belongings were stolen recently, the negative comment and unflattering photo of him digging inside a dumpster were posted.

He said he didn’t see the post, but did hear from a handful of people upset about it.

Compassion Highway Director Melissa Mayne said she saw the post, which called Pitzl, a Navy veteran, several “ugly names” and made fun of and criticized him for digging in the dumpster for cans.

“I saw the post right away and I felt like, ‘How dare you?,’ ” Mayne said. “He’s a veteran and he served our country. He’s not out there panhandling. He’s trying to survive on his own and he doesn’t want to ask for help, so he’s trying to turn in cans.

“I was so mad, so I let her have it. It was just really mean. I was happy to see the backfire. A lot of people were defending Steve. They’ve seen him around and they know he’s a good man. He always picks up trash and he’s a kind and respectful person. I was happy to see most people were not against him collecting his cans.”

Within hours, Mayne said, dozens of offers of cans, bottles, clothing and shoes for Pitzl were posted online. Mayne met with Pitzl Wednesday and Thursday and helped transport donated cans to the bottle-return facility in Medford.

Mayne said Pitzl “even offered gas money,” which she declined.

Tanya Kniespeck, who lives near the Royal Avenue apartments where Pitzl was photographed, posted online about the drive to provide cans to Pitzl. Kniespeck, who said she was homeless as a child and sympathizes with homeless people trying to make ends meet, was outraged by the post that mocked Pitzl.

“I’ve known Steve for about four years,” Kniespeck said. “He comes and collects cans and stuff. When I first met him, I thought he was going to be one of those troublesome people and such, but after we had a conversation I realized he was really polite. What we started doing was gathering the cans for Steve, so now he comes to my door a couple times a week and we just give him the cans.”

Pitzl was emotional about the support received this week. Turning 60 in July, Pitzl has been homeless for several years after the brother he lived with was killed in a car crash. He said he prefers can collecting to panhandling, and he tries to “not ruffle any feathers.”

“If people are worried about people going through their trash, usually you can just ask them not to do it. If they’re willing to share their cans, they could just put them in a bag next to the can,” Pitzl said. To the resident who posted his photo and called him names, Pitzl said he could only offer thanks.

“If she hadn’t posted what she did, then everyone else wouldn’t have offered to help me out with some cans, so I guess she did me a favor, in a way. I didn’t see the post, but if I could talk to her I’d just say, ‘Hey, I’m not a bad guy. I’m just picking up the cans.’ I’ve made mistakes in my past, but I think everyone has.

“Maybe 3 percent of people are bothered by people collecting cans to turn in. And even though I’m looking in the trash cans, I don’t wanna dig too deep into anything gross unless I’m having a real bad day.”

Pitzl encouraged tolerance for his fellow homeless people.

“There are two sides to every story, so I would just tell anyone, ‘Try getting to know people before you judge them or decide they’re not worth anything.’ Like I said, I’m just trying to pick up some cans and make it from one day to the next.”

People interested in donating cans or other items to Pitzl can contact Compassion Highway at 541-646-8004.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

PHOTO BY DENISE BARATTA Steve Pitzl, a homeless veteran, has been receiving bags of donated cans from strangers in response to social media posts shaming him for collecting cans in a West Medford neighborhood.