At the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail camp — one of the largest homeless camps in Vancouver — a single, modest-size trash can spills over with empty food containers and paper towels. The leftover food has attracted wasps.
It’s a trash bin shared not only by dozens of people experiencing homelessness but community members who walk and ride along the trail, as well.
Trash in homeless camps has been a consistent problem for the residents living in the camps and their housed neighbors.
The city of Vancouver does take action to prevent the trash build-up at camps. But with a growing number of people being chronically unsheltered in Clark County, it’s a problem that’s becoming more visible.
Several readers submitted questions through Clark Asks, The Columbian’s reader-guided reporting project, asking why they see trash at homeless camps and what’s being done about it.
Here is what we have been able to find out.
A lack of trash cans
Camps often share a single trash can or create a trash pile for pick-up from the city’s clean-up crew, Talkin’ Trash.
Talkin’ Trash goes to 60 sites or more a week, removing trash from campsites or illegal dumps. Most trash cans near camps are meant for public use — not for people living outside, explained Tony Colin, supervisor of Talkin’ Trash.
“Some people don’t know what to do with their trash, whether they have it there where they’re camping or they just discard it where they think is best,” Colin said.
Those who live in the camps say they’re concerned that if too much trash builds up, the city will clean up the entire camp, which means their tents must move or be removed.
Adam Kay, who has lived in camps around the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail for around a year, said he’s experienced four of those cleanups. It’s difficult for him to move his camp, so he tries to keep his space clean and sanitary to avoid city intervention.
It’s hard to maintain that level of cleanliness with the single public trash can, he said.
“There’s not many access points to get rid of our trash. The city does a decent job, giving us garbage bags, but that stuff just piles up really fast,” Kay said. “There’s a huge deficiency compared to the output.”
Lisa, who lives in a tent with her dog and her boyfriend and asked that her last name not be used, doesn’t even try to use the trash can. She drops it off at her boyfriend’s mother’s house or burns it at her campfire.
With limited trash cans, garbage begins to show up in places it shouldn’t. Vincent Mendez lives in downtown Vancouver and said the portable toilets at the encampment near Share House are often full of trash.
And it’s not just people living in the camps who are affected by garbage build-up, it’s their neighbors, too.
Shannon Stamps, who lives near Share House, said her neighborhood has dealt with people experiencing homelessness stealing trash bins for personal use.
One solution could be placing large dumpsters at campsites, but the problem with that is that people from outside the camp will use them for illegal dumping, explained Tony Colin, supervisor of Talkin’ Trash.
“I think that’s also why the city has kind of taken a step back as far as putting dumpsters out there, because it just invites other people to make bad behaviors that are illegal,” Colin said.”
He frequently removes large furniture or mattresses that are illegally dumped — it’s about 30 percent of his job, he said.
“The public has to understand that it’s not just homeless people that’s building this garbage buildup,” Colin said.
Mental health and hope for housing
Besides having few places to dispose of things, people experiencing homelessness often hold onto them, hoping they’ll get housing soon and have a place for them again, Colin said.
“It’s their valuables,” he said.
Some people who are homeless struggle with their mental health. Both housed and unhoused people can develop hoarding disorders, but hoarding can be more prevalent among people with histories of homelessness or housing insecurity, according to a 2020 study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.
Stressful life events, such as the death of a family member or losing possessions in the past, can increase the risk of developing hoarding disorder — in which people anguish at the thought of discarding items, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“I think for those who have that hoarding condition, for some it can be dealing with anxiety. For some, it can be with holding onto memories. It can be for many things. And sometimes, people don’t even know how to distinguish what could be trash and what’s not,” Colin said.
However, everyone has an attachment to the items they value, so Talkin’ Trash works on building relationships with people living in camps and being sensitive to what people might want to hold onto, he said.
“Even though it might look like trash, it might be somebody’s property. It might have their identity in there,” Colin said. “So we like to communicate, and if we don’t get that communication, we leave it alone.”
Colin said the level of trash he sees at homeless camps has stayed consistent over his last two years working with Talkin’ Trash, but people might notice more because the number of people living outside has grown.
Council for the Homeless counted 672 people living unsheltered in Clark County in 2023, up from 625 people in 2022.
Colin said he believes the city of Vancouver is taking steps to address trash in homeless camps by working with Talkin’ Trash and the HART team, but he said getting people into housing and other services are the best ways to solve the issue long term.
“What’s needed is more services, more services to assist people living outdoors, and that means more housing, more addressing mental health,” Colin said. “I think with that, we’ll see progress.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.