Tahoe groups work to clean up homeless camps and find services for people

A homeless camp off Avenue Winnemucca / Fourni

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif .– Homeless settlements are a sad reality for cities and South Lake Tahoe is no exception. But local agencies are working not only to clean up the messy camps, but also to help the people who live there.

Clean Tahoe is a South Lake non-profit organization that works on waste and waste management and public education. It was started in 1988 to solve most of the illegal dumping problems that have become more common. Since then it has transformed and one of the things they have had to do more is clean up the homeless settlements.

Clean Tahoe is under contract with the City of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County, so it coordinates with the jurisdiction of the agency in which the camp is located.

But before Clean Tahoe can enter the camp to clean it up, camp residents must have two weeks to evacuate. This is where STACS comes in.

South Tahoe Alternative Collaborative Services is a collaboration between city public health and safety groups, including the South Lake Tahoe Police and Fire Departments, Barton Hospital, and the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless.

Police Chief Dave Stevenson said he would coordinate with the Homeless Coalition before giving the eviction notice so the coalition can reach out and put those people in touch with services.

Homeless Coalition Executive Director Cheyenne Purrington is working hard to bring people in the camps to permanent living conditions. Thanks to the Homekey project, the coalition bought motels to house the homeless. Although there was no Warm Room this year, Purrington said he saw a 30% increase in the number of people with access to shelter.

After receiving proper notice, Clean Tahoe enters with bags and gloves and begins the cleanup.

Kathleen Sheehan, executive director of Clean Tahoe, said that was the depressing part of the job.

“For a long time I struggled with this because you want to blame it because you see these beautiful areas being looted and for me it really made me think of my own consumption,” Sheehan said, adding that the staff had found items they threw or donated among the camp items.

Sheehan said that because they had been warned, the camp residents took their important personal items with them, so all that was left was garbage. For example, because they do not have access to washing machines, often once the clothes are too dirty, they are simply thrown aside.

So the first thing Clean Tahoe does is put all the clothes together in one pile. Sheehan saw some interesting items in the piles left after the clothes disappeared, including Nancy Drew books and a box of records. Sheehan said they see a lot of food waste, empty propane tanks and batteries. There are also the nastier items such as human feces and used needles.

Staff cleaning the camps all wear personal protective equipment and any items they collect are marked as biohazardous and disposed of accordingly.

Staff cleaning a camp near Montreal Road / Supplied

While all of this sounds distasteful to the average person, Purrington reminds people to remember the feelings of the people living in the camp.

“The reason there is so much discomfort in thinking about homeless camps is because of the aspect of personal dignity, it’s not just an environmental or visual issue,” said Purrington.

However, often when a camp is cleared, residents move their belongings to another area to set up camp. In fiscal year 2019/20, Clean Tahoe cleaned up around 36 homeless camps, but many of them were in rehearsal areas, such as the meadow behind Grocery Outlet.

“Cleaning them up was just the camp, not the people living in the camps,” Purrington said.

She also said she would prefer the camp not to be relocated, especially during the pandemic as the risk of spread is increased.

Yet there is an environmental impact of the camps, not only because of the people living in fragile ecosystems, but because the wildlife has easy access to things in the camps. Purrington, however, reminds people that the environmental aspect cannot be resolved until the human aspect is resolved.

“We’re involved in a very dirty part of it, but my heart goes out to anyone who is mentally ill or addicted to anything,” Sheehan said. “I think it’s just a real cry for a need for services for people struggling with mental illness and addiction.”

There is a silver lining though. Stevenson and Purrington both said they saw a real positive impact from STACS. Stevenson said the SLTPD sees fewer calls related to mental health and drugs.

Purrington said Barton is seeing fewer repeat offenders at the hospital and the homeless coalition has been working hard to get the documents people need (birth certificate, ID card, etc.) and place them in permanent housing.

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