FORT WORTH, TEX. For Goodwill workers, the stained mattresses and broken refrigerators were insult enough.
Then one day, in suburban Fort Worth, someone dropped off a 55-gallon barrel of toxic chemicals. A hazardous materials crew had to haul the poison away.
"That's why they dump it after hours," said David Cox, director of community relations for Goodwill. "It's the charity that has to clean it up."
Goodwill's trouble is among the worst examples of a trend that is tormenting charities nationwide. People increasingly use collection centers to dump bulky, bothersome trash.
The culprits wait until dark, sneak to an unmanned collection center and leave what even the most desperate person would shun.
"Couches without legs, beds that are broken in half," said Rebekah Oursler, community service coordinator for the Women's Shelter. "We can't furnish a woman who has left in the middle of the night with a broken couch."
She guesses that some vandals are well-meaning, assuming that the shelter can mend their junk with a few nails or a coat of paint. Other people are just passing off trash, Oursler said. Rarely does the refuse offer hints about who might have dropped it off, making perpetrators impossible to track down.
The problem puts a sizable dent in charities with small budgets. Last month, Goodwill spent slightly more than $6,000 to get rid of the refuse, which is a typical monthly cost, Cox said.
Christian Community Storehouse in suburban Fort Worth invites its callers to leave items in an after-hours storage bin. In the morning, workers often find it full of dirty clothes and soiled mattresses. The charity then must schedule an extra trash pickup.
"It costs us hundreds of dollars to get rid of," volunteer Nancy Ryan said.
Goodwill has about 24 donation centers in the Fort Worth area, and it maintains trailers rather than drop boxes. The charity plans to phase out trailers, though, and move into shopping centers instead. Nobody dumps trash at a shopping center, Cox said.
There are usable items among the junk, which creates another problem. People tend to steal the legitimate items that are left overnight. To deter theft, groups such as Catholic Charities ask that donations be handed over to a person during business hours.
At the Salvation Army thrift store near Dallas, there is no drop box for donors, manager William Love said.
"Most times, they call," he said. The group will pick up bulky items, but some of them, such as mattresses, are unacceptable.
There are alternatives to disposing of an old, smelly sofa. Trinity Waste Systems near Fort Worth will take bulky items left at the curb, but only after crews finish collecting household trash on their route.
In Fort Worth, brush and bulky waste are collected curbside once a month. Just about anything goes, barring concrete, car parts, refrigerators and tires. Scrap metal hounds will often take an abandoned refrigerator, though.
Charity volunteers insist that they cannot serve every need, and someone else will have to tote the region's broken washing machines to the dump.
But no one wants to discourage giving, and Cox suggests abiding by a simple rule.
"If you're going to have a problem disposing of it," he said, "so are we."