What I learned cleaning up a homeless camp
The first thing I noticed upon reaching the abandoned piles of trash alongside Chester Creek behind my apartment building were several small black and yellow boxes.
They resembled the type of packaging that may contain auto fuses and I wondered what new intoxicating purpose had been discovered within them, but as I crouched down for a better look and picked one up I realized the boxes had once contained contact lenses.
Then I found the contents strewn about nearby: dozens of lenses still in their unopened plastic containers. The hundreds of dollars worth of product obviously stolen from someone’s mailbox had proven of little value to the thieves and been summarily discarded.
The next thing I found was the empty bottle labeled “Dirty Needles!” with the exclamation point cheerfully spiked by a heart. All around I had soon plucked about a dozen needles from the ground, carefully grabbing them by the middle through the Kevlar-lined gloves purchased with this specific risk in mind, and breaking off each tip before placing them into the first of 20 39-gallon trash bags I would eventually fill over four days.
I was immediately frustrated as I tried to start with big items such as sleeping bags, pillows, foam and even a box spring but found them literally frozen solid into the ground.
They would not budge and forced me to go back to picking up the more mundane trash of cans, bottles, clothes, all types of plastic (but not plastic grocery bags thanks to the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz!), a seemingly infinite number of batteries, empty aerosols mined as inhalants, and more needles.
One lesson quickly learned about avoiding contact with human feces was to be less aggressive grabbing paper or any trash bag near a tree.
The oddest thing I kept finding were the six-round loaders sold for toy cap guns, and I wondered once again what new high was being sought from such an innocuous item.
I never did find any toy guns, but I did find enough toys to stock a daycare center.
The toys, stuffed animals, children’s clothing and diapers that filled my bags were depressing evidence of what had been going on unchecked for months over the winter just 50 yards from my apartment balcony.
Not only were an untold number of addicts in a non-stop pursuit of their next high by any means necessary, but small children in the same camp were exposed to this danger and criminal neglect.
After spending a couple hours on each of the first two days on the biggest problem area, I moved a little farther downstream to the next site behind my building on the third day.
This was apparently some kind of trash burn area, so the piles were at least a bit more concentrated. But without a shovel or a front-loader there was no way to even begin to clean those up other than grabbing the larger items around the edges.
Day three was relatively quick work, although I couldn't remove items such as a charred shopping cart and the burnt insides of a mattress.
Feeling better about my progress for the day, I spotted a Quaker Oats canister tucked under a bush.
It was filled with dozens of needles, which was as disheartening of an exclamation point to the day as the handwritten label on the bottle I found to start day one.
My plan for cleanup was to take care of the area immediately behind my building. I assume the land is owned by the municipality based on the fact that the maintenance crew that takes care of the landscaping at my building refuses to pick up even a McDonald’s bag in the area if it isn’t in the parking lot.
The area also lies across Chester Creek from the trail so I had zero faith whatsoever that the Parks and Recreation Department would be by anytime in the next few months to take care of it.
I’ve lived here for a few years now, and this area had always been a nice perk. I can be on the trail with Dakota in just a few minutes or stroll along the creek banks for shorter bathroom breaks. Every year I host a “trailgating” party for the Iditarod start through Anchorage where friends can gather for breakfast and then watch up close as the teams go by without battling the downtown crowd.
The area has been off limits to me since last fall when the camps started popping up behind my building and the one next door. No longer could I stroll through the woods on my way home or walk along the creek.
Last September, I heard a splashing sound coming from the creek and wondered if it was a salmon. I knew Chester Creek had salmon, but had never actually seen one despite countless walks on this trail over the years.
I walked to the bank and curiosity turned into dismay as I saw what was happening. A shopping cart had been tossed into the creek and several pink salmon were struggling to get around it as they kept getting pushed by the current into the basket.
After tying Dakota’s leash to a tree, I made my way down the bank and pulled the cart weighed down by leaves and other trash out, but not without crashing into the mud first.
The salmon swam upstream in relief and I drug the cart up the bank and pushed it about 50 feet away. The next day I went back and sure enough it had been chucked into the creek again.
As I pulled it out, some guy emerged from a tent and told me he had the cart in the creek trying to catch his girlfriend’s purse that he’d thrown in there. I told him he wasn’t allowed to have carts anymore and muscled two of them up into the parking lot, into my Tahoe and back to their home at Walmart.
Not long after I used the tool on the Municipality of Anchorage website to report the budding camps. Rather than the camps being vacated, they expanded all winter to the point they had reached when I started my cleanup.
After four days taking care of my small area, I walked up the small rise “next door” and literally stood still in amazement as I gazed around at the scene. An area as big as a football field along the creek is utterly ravaged by trash and burn piles.
Imagining what the Environmental Protection Agency would do to a company that allowed this kind of pollution to amass at a drill site or a placer mine is easy. Fines totaling hundreds of thousands if not millions would be in order, yet this is the state the Municipality of Anchorage has allowed to develop within critical fish and wildlife habitat.
Chester and Campbell creeks are protected by the state Anadromous Fish Act, and as streams that flow into Cook Inlet and eventually the Pacific Ocean they are subject to the federal Clean Water Act.
The creeks and riparian areas are also home to ducks, geese and other species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Pollution from plastics, human waste and other trash entering the water is obvious, as are the toxic chemicals leeching into the soil.
Perhaps if the administration and the Assembly are not motivated by humanitarian reasons to get Anchorage in order, they could be inspired by the possible liability for destroying the protected natural habitat that is also the central pillar of the city’s marketing strategy.
“It’s a national problem,” the mayor often says as he passes the buck when asked about the homeless problem.
With all due respect, what has happened to Anchorage is a local problem that has gotten demonstrably worse from the neglect of its elected leaders over the years.
When I picked up trash along the Chester Creek trail during City Cleanup in 2010, I filled three or four bags along a mile of the trail. It took a half-hour in one small spot to fill up that many in 2020.
While the mayor hectors law-abiding people about getting tattoos, he gives a pass to the people who are passing out or passing the bottle without interruption at the busiest intersections in town.
I didn’t clean up the creek banks behind my building so I could write a story about it. I did it so I could enjoy the area again.
I know I don’t live in a fancy part of town, but I like it and I’ll be damned if I move before the people who are destroying it are forced to.
There are thousands of people like me around Anchorage. We deserve to be heard, and we’re tired of hearing the same story.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].