Untrash the Planet - How To Series

How to Untrash the Planet

Sensitive Environment

Oakland Homeless Encampment

It’s important to note that Untrashing campsites is an ongoing and long-term process, which means that building relationships is critical for long-term success. An aggressive cleanup might produce results in the short-term, but if it causes suffering, and creates badwill, it will sabotage long-term results.

ntrashing encampments poses special challenges, this is a guide for cleaning around campsites safely, respectfully, and effectively. 

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Why so much trash?

The main reason is that most encampments lack regular, systematic trash removal, which means that even small or moderate trash flows can result in huge piles over time. Ask yourself what would happen if garbage collection was halted in your neighborhood for 6 months - would just about everyone soon have a trash pile on their property? You bet they would. On top of that, hoarding is a survival strategy when you lack resources; many of us hoard even when we do have resources.

So why isn’t there regular pick up? There are three main reasons, the first is jurisdictional lockout - most cities do not clean non-city lands. Most encampments are found along and under highways for a reason - those are lands that cities don’t own, don’t service, and can’t evict people from.

The second reason is a lack of resources, many agencies, both local and state, are overwhelmed. In California, Caltrans’ spending on trash abatement jumped from $65 million to over $100 million annually in just the last few years. Covid eliminated all highway cleanups across California for months last year, and prisoner and probationer-led cleanups are still blocked in many areas today, which has added to the burden.

The third reason is absentee landlordism - large landowners like railroad companies and State agencies are broadly unaware of what’s happening locally.

How to Approach a Campsite

Our interactions with unhoused people have been overwhelmingly positive to date, and gratitude is the most common feedback we receive. Here’s how:

 

When approaching a shelter, it’s often hard to hear each other, so Speak Loudly, and Repeat yourself. You often won’t be able to see each other, and it can be hard to know if they understand you. So Speak Loudly, and Repeat yourself.

Start by Hailing the campsite: “Hello! Anyone Home?” REPEAT SEVERAL TIMES. You really don’t want to surprise people, so be extra-sure.

If you do get a response, the next thing to say is: “Hi, I’m just here for the trash

This is a good time to wait for them to come out, or otherwise to make eyecontact so you know they can hear and see you.

 

Once you’re in contact, introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Steve, I’m with this group that does trash cleanups, is there stuff you’d like us to take away?

 

This is important - when you start this way, you put yourself in service to them, and when you do this, it melts resistance. You become an ally, not a threat.

Ask for Guidance

Then listen, and ask questions - it’s ok to suggest: “How about this pile?” but don’t push, people move around a lot, and there will be other opportunities. Most people are extremely grateful for the help, and goodwill is crucial.

 

Somewhere in the conversation, be sure to introduce yourself again, and ask their name: “I’m Steve by the way, what’s your name?” Then repeat their name back to them: “Hi John, nice to meet you” this shows respect, and reminds us all of our shared humanity. Greeting someone by name builds goodwill and trust.

Most encampments have many abandoned campsites, ask the locals what can be cleared away - on several occasions we’ve discovered that massive encampments with 100+ cubic yards of trash, only have one or two residents.

Is it Trash?

Sometimes you have to make decisions. A bag of clothes left out in the rain, may seem like trash, but these items often have value - whenever possible, ask. Tents, tarps, and structures, and the things in them, should always be left unless clearly abandoned (e.g. collapsed). Loose litter, food waste, and trash middens are fair game for removal. These are some items that have value, that are often mistaken for trash:

  • Building supplies. Stacks of wood, especially poles and tarps are useful

  • Things wrapped up in a tarp - if it looks like a package, someone is saving it.

  • Bike Parts and other hardware - collections of parts are often being saved

  • Bags of clothes or shoes - this category is mixed, if in doubt, leave it

  • A wall of materials surrounding a tent. This is often for security.

  • Firewood: a stack of broken up wood is probably not trash

A good clue is proximity - things that are piled next to a shelter are more likely to be possessions, things that are further out, are more likely to be abandoned.​

How to Stay Safe

Traffic is usually the greatest hazard in and around encampments. Always wear neon safety vests when working along streets. Stay at least 12 feet from highway traffic at all times, and stay off highway pavement and on/off ramps. If traffic is a hazard, work when traffic is light.

 

Mold and Particulate Hazards. We strongly recommend wearing a N95 face mask when cleaning encampments. Most fabrics will have molds. Fires are common at encampments, and the residue from burning plastic is toxic. Rats are common, and cloth may be contaminated with their urine or feces.

 

Sticks and Cuts Wear durable shoes, long pants, and gloves at all times. Watch your hands when picking things up - don’t scoop or drag your fingers - instead, look at your hands, and pluck items. Needles are common in encampments, dragging your hands through the dirt is a recipe for getting stuck with a needle.

We commonly use nitrile coated gloves that provide excellent tactile control, but are not highly protective.

 

Feces and Pee Bottles Sealed pee bottles and dried feces can be put in bagged trash, only use picker tools for handling these materials.

 

Physical Hazards Trips and injuries from lifting are risks - know your limits.

  1. Thoroughly wash your entire arm after untrashing encampments.

  2. Do NOT eat or handle food or smoke until you’ve cleaned.

  3. We recommend placing your clothes directly into the wash and immediately showering after untrashing encampments.

How to Dispose of Needles

If you don’t have a sharps container (a hard plastic, sealable container), move needles to a out-of-the way, easy-to-find spot, leave them and then let someone know. Do NOT carry them around with you. Do NOT put them in the trash. You can use a hard-plastic soda bottle as a sharps container in a pinch.

 

To dispose of needles, set a sharps container on the ground next to the needle, crouch down, and watching your hands, pluck the needle and deposit it directly into the container, needle-side down. Don’t use a picker tool for this.

Legal and Social Context

Some important legal and social context about encampments:

  • US courts have ruled that people have a right to sleep on public lands when alternatives are not available.

  • US courts have ruled that unattended property found during a cleanup must be stored and made available to its owners. Taking people’s possessions can cause great hardship and suffering.

  • CDC guidelines recommend not moving encampments during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Evicting people may reduce the trash in an area, but it also means more people in another area.

Interacting with Homeless Advocates

There is a long history of people coming in and clearing homeless encampments and throwing away people’s property (which causes hardship and suffering, and is illegal). Because of this history, many advocates are suspicious of cleanup efforts generally. If you have conversations with advocates, emphasize that our approach is respectful and cooperative.

Interacting with Press

Press is an opportunity to bring in more help, to make the most of it, mention that people can learn more by going to the Untrash website (Spell it out: “The Untrash dot eye tee website”). Emphasize the positive – what you’re doing, the impacts it has, how people respond, and how it feels to see the area clean again. Emphasize that our approach is respectful and cooperative this will help people feel more comfortable coming out to help.

Version 1.10

Feb 15, 2021

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