An increase in unemployment often leads to a spike in the unsheltered population. Cities throughout the United States were already seeing these impacts, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic compounds the issue. Homeless individuals often lack the resources to properly dispose of trash and waste, much of this ends up in our waterways. The Foothill Conservancy has long been concerned about threats to water quality from homeless encampments, as well as ensuring equitable access to proper hygiene supplies and clean water. We have not let the pandemic slow us down. In fact, the increase has motivated us to action. Earlier in 2020, we formed the Homeless Engagement Team to map, study, and address the potential harm to water quality related to waste along waterways in Amador and Calaveras counties.
The Team has identified several goals:
- Develop key partnerships
- Map and document unsheltered encampments and waste sites
- Engage homeless people through positive interactions
- Bring waste to a more manageable level by coordinating disposal of build-ups along waterways
- Educate and recruit homeless as volunteers to promote cleaner encampments
- Distribute hygiene and sanitation products and promote proper disposal
- Coordinate ongoing disposal of trash and waste
- Less physical and chemical waste entering our waterways
- Improved water quality
- A sense of stewardship among the homeless
- Better living conditions for the homeless
- Increased mapping of encampments in Amador and Calaveras counties
- Increased positive public perception of unsheltered residents
- Stronger relationships among agencies and organizations
The team cannot stress the importance of partnerships. Sierra Wind and Wellness has a deep knowledge of the local homeless community and has acted as a liaison, introducing us to many of the local unsheltered people. This has been crucial in developing working relationships. ACES Waste Services, Inc. has generously waived the fees of hauling and delivery of waste bins – showing their commitment to improving watershed health.
To prevent winter rains washing large amounts of trash downstream, we already completed two clean-ups in Jackson, both along Jackson Creek, with the bulk of the waste in the creek bottom or flood zone. Residents of one encampment worked side-by-side with our volunteers and staff, bagging most of the trash and helping load it into trucks. We were able to haul away two overfilled pickup loads to ACES Buena Vista, who let us dispose of the trash free of charge.
Upstream along Jackson Creek, was an abandoned encampment with trash strewn about the creek bottom, everything from clothing to household furniture. ACES Waste provided a 20 cubic yard waste bin, and, with the help of volunteers, we were able to clean up just under one ton of trash.
Our work has just begun, and there are many more locations throughout Amador and Calaveras with similar conditions. We will be tackling a project in January to clean up approximately 60 cubic yards of waste from Rock Creek in Jackson.
2021 will bring expansion into Calaveras County, more collaborations and partnerships with agencies, individuals, and businesses to support the project, and increased engagement of unsheltered populations within the boundaries of the Mokelumne watershed.