Compassionate Cleanups

The NEC sees litter cleanups as a tool to stem the flow of trash that ends up in our waterways, but also as a way to gather data about where littler is coming from so that we can advocate for solutions to the problem. Through data collection we’ve seen the environmental impact of the housing crisis. According to the most recent Point in Time count by Humboldt County, there are at least 1,656 people living on the streets in our county. Due to the limitations of the count and the fact that it only includes a 24-hour period, this estimate is undoubtedly smaller than the actual number of unhoused people who live in our community. Many of our unhoused neighbors end up living in greenbelts or other open spaces.

This weekend, there is a plan to “sweep” one of these encampments during a volunteer cleanup, meaning that the residents and all of their belongings will be removed. “Sweeping” encampments does nothing to solve the problem of trash in our communities, nor does it do anything to solve the problem of houselessness. Events like this simply create division in the community and result in unhoused people moving to other areas. Until we find a way to house everyone in our community, we need to provide services, including regular trash pick-up and sanitation services, for those who are living in our greenbelts. It’s important to remember that these are members of our community who also care about the environment and deserve respect. Unfortunately, not having cooking or refrigeration facilities results in a lot of plastic packaging. In many cases folks want to dispose of trash in a responsible way, but don’t have access to disposal services because our local governments have yet to prioritize providing these services. We can all help by advocating for more housing and more services, but in the meantime here are some tips for doing cleanups in a way that is safe and respectful.


  1. Remember that the pile of belongings that you find might not be abandoned. Folks who are not housed often don’t have a place to stash their belongings (tent, bedding, clothes, personal items, etc.) while they are out for the day, and carrying all of those things with them is not only difficult, but can also make them a target. According to our friends at Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA) and Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction (HACHR), who work with unhoused community members, many people have lost belongings, sometimes precious personal belongings like important documents, medications, eyeglasses or family photos, when encampments have been “cleaned out.” Unless you know that the items have been abandoned, it’s best to leave them and keep an eye out next time you are doing a cleanup in the area to see if they are still there.
  2. When you do encounter a pile of obvious trash, be mindful that it may contain hidden sharp objects so be careful when picking it up. Use heavy leather gloves or a trash-picker to facilitate safe transfer to a trash bag. If you are unsure if there may be syringes in the pile of trash, pick up one piece of trash at a time. If you do encounter a syringe, always handle syringes with gloved hands, facing the pointy part away from your body. Using a “sharps container” with a biohazard rating is the most ideal storage in lieu of disposal (at HACHR, or other safe disposal sites in the community). If you do not have a sharps container, using an old plastic or glass water bottle can work great as a substitution. Make sure to put the syringe in the bottle point first. You cannot contract Hepatitis C or HIV from simply coming in contact with a syringe. You should, however, be very careful when handling syringes to avoid needlestick injuries, which may lead to the contraction of blood borne illnesses, albeit extremely rare even in the case of a needlestick injury.
  3. Although it may not have walls, a camp is someone’s home (even if it’s temporary) and it’s important to respect that. You wouldn’t want someone barging into your home, even if they came with good intentions, so be mindful of those boundaries and avoid entering spaces that appear to be inhabited. If you are doing a group cleanup, make sure that your fellow volunteers know which sites are inhabited and off-limits.
  4. If you know that there is an encampment in an area in which you regularly pick up litter, consider introducing yourself and making an arrangement to drop off a trash bag and come pick it up later, whether that’s a couple of hours later or in a few days. That way you can facilitate responsible trash disposal while being respectful of people’s privacy. This is also a great way to make a connection with your fellow human beings and can result in less stress for all parties involved. If you are comfortable doing this, it’s important to remember to be courteous, respectful and non-judgmental. If you are not comfortable doing it, then don’t, but still remember to be courteous, respectful and non-judgemental.
  5. Many unhoused people have had belongings “cleaned up”, either by well-meaning volunteers or by those who simply want them to leave the area, or had them confiscated by police, so it may take awhile to build trust and rapport. Putting in the effort to build trust can result in a mutually beneficial situation in which you get to collaborate with your unhoused neighbors to steward this place that we all call home, and maybe make new friends.