In Defense of Homeless Camp Cleanups
By Tanner Todd
Last week, I rode my motorcycle up to the top of B Street in Salt Lake City. It was a beautiful day for a ride but instead, I was there to volunteer. The Salt Lake County Health Department was cleaning up some homeless camps.
I volunteered so I could get an inside look at this somewhat unsavory end of dealing with homelessness. It is easy to label a camp cleanup as something that removes our city's most vulnerable from the closest thing they have to a home. However, as I assisted in the effort, I learned that it is indirectly quite the opposite.
First of all I need to say that it is the responsibility of the health department to maintain minimum community standards and help prevent the spread of disease and injury. Even though it is difficult and sad in its own way, cleaning up camps is their requirement by law and it goes a long way in protecting the public health—particularly when it comes to disposing of used needles and human waste. This legal imperative is easy enough to understand (though sometimes difficult to swallow), but what I didn't think I would see was the truly human-centered aspect of this effort.
When I first arrived, I met an older gentleman by the name of Pete*. He took a liking to me, and throughout the day would call out to me with a jovial, "Volunteer! You got an extra bag I can fill up here?" Until recently, Pete had been in and out of homelessness for longer than I've been alive. He said that it was Operation Rio Grande that gave him the wake-up call he needed to get his life back on track. "After my time in prison," he told me, "I just knew something had to change." Now Pete lives at the Home Inn (an SRO facility on Rio Grande street) and works full-time for the city's parks crew. It was jobs like cleaning up the camps that gave him a steady income and helped him achieve a measure of self-reliance.
His buddy Josh* was only a few years older than me—but even at 27, he had seen more than his share of hardship. As we rode in the back of a pickup truck to a new camp in the next ravine, Josh told me how getting mixed up in drugs led to him living out of his car when he was still in high school. "There's only one thing I ain't never tried," he said, speaking of his life as an addict. "Alcohol. I saw too much of what it did to my dad." Now, Josh is living a completely drug-free life and is grateful for the income and stability that working for the parks crew gives him.
We were joined that day by a busload of workers from the Utah Department of Corrections. As we filled countless bags with trash, I spoke with Steven*—a young man about Josh's age. He was very well spoken and polite, and we made pleasant small talk for a long time. At one point he asked me why I was there, and told me about how he just had "a few more weeks with this thing on" (gesturing to his ankle monitor). Steven told me that he was looking forward to joining the family real estate business when he was finished. "It's hard work, doing sh-t like this," he said, pointing around us to the heaps of broken furniture remnants, crusty blankets and clothing, unopened canned food, and years’ worth of accumulated knick knacks. "At least it gives me a reason to not end up like whoever lived here. I have way more going for me at home than I thought I did."
I can't share all the stories of the people I met, but in every case, this camp cleanup was giving them a way out of homelessness or drug abuse themselves. In connection with this, the cleanups were also often a help to the people who occupied the camps. Pete told me that people came up into the canyon and would spend days or weeks at a time in camps like these with the drugs they had obtained. When the health department comes up to give notice of cleanups, they verify first that there are enough beds in the shelters. They share information with the people living in the camps about the resources that are available. Then, they organize a cleanup using individuals (like the ones I met) who benefit greatly by helping out.
As I looked out at the state capitol peeking over the ridge to the south, I thought of all the various efforts and policies needed to solve our crisis of homelessness. I thought about Pete, and how he is working hard to prove to himself (and to his wife and daughter in Rose Park) that he can be a good man. I thought of Marta*, a woman helping with us that day, who had recently taken herself off meth and was working towards gaining custody of her second grader. Finally, I thought that the health department's efforts in cleaning up our city are just as important and helpful as any other initiatives or programs that are currently in place. I am happy for the chance I had to assist in their efforts last week.
Tanner joined the Pioneer Park Coalition in the spring and is currently serving as the Community Outreach Coordinator. He is a senior at Brigham Young University studying advertising. He likes trying new things, being in the mountains, and spending time with his wife and their two guinea pigs.
*Names have been changed