Addressing the crisis of homelessness in Clark County — and elsewhere — requires strong intervention from local governments. It also requires an informed and thoughtful public that focuses on the realities of the issue rather than inflammatory rhetoric.
In that regard, a recent article from Columbian reporters Mia Ryder-Marks and Alexis Weisend helps to advance the discussion surrounding homelessness in our community.
Responding to questions from readers, the reporters set out to learn “What’s being done about trash in Clark County homeless camps.”
The answer is: Plenty. But as anybody who has driven, walked or bicycled past one of the area’s numerous encampments knows, it’s not enough. Garbage is one of the visible impacts of allowing a camp to sprout and linger in public spaces; human waste is less visible but no less of a problem.
The hazards that inevitably accompany tent cities are unfathomable. As Gov. Jay Inslee told The Columbian’s Editorial Board last year: “It is my belief that it is distressing to everyone to see this degradation that is going on in every urban area in the state, people living in squalor. That’s not acceptable in the state of Washington.”
As reported by The Columbian, the city of Vancouver has a clean-up crew dubbed “Talkin’ Trash.” That group visits 60 or more sites per week, removing trash from campsites or illegal dumps. As one supervisor said: “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.”
That, of course, has quality-of-life costs for nearby residents and financial costs for taxpayers.
It also can have public safety consequences. One unhoused person quoted in the article said she burns some of her refuse in campfires; several fires have blazed out of control in recent years at encampments in Clark County.
Trash surrounding homeless camps is not unique to Clark County, nor is it limited to urban areas. In June, the Aberdeen City Council reported: “Volunteers, city workers, etc., have been encountering large amounts of food and garbage waste where most of our unsheltered population is staying.” In response, many cities throughout the country have instituted programs paying homeless people to pick up garbage.
That is a thoughtful idea, but it can have a limited impact. A pilot program in Portland was launched in 2021 to employ unhoused people, but the city’s struggle with unsightly and hazardous encampments continues with little visible progress. Other cities had programs derailed by the arrival of the COVID pandemic.
Meanwhile, suggestions for placing dumpsters near encampments have generated concerns about nearby residents illegally dumping unwanted items, and cleanup crews are cognizant of the fact that one person’s garbage is another’s treasure. “Even though it might look like trash, it might be somebody’s property. It might have their identity in there,” one official said.
The impact of a vast number of unhoused people is devastating for a community. There are concerns about human waste, visible trash and public safety. But it is more complicated than simply clearing out camps when some residents of our community have no place else to go. Affordable housing, mental health services and substance abuse treatments are essential for reversing a scourge that continues to grow.
In the meantime, input from an informed public is essential for developing and implementing solutions.