Should I Clear a Homeless Camp on Public Land?

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You might think that being author of an ethics column would make Sundog’s own ethical decisions easy. Not so much. This month I stumbled up my own quandary that I couldn’t answer.

I live in a town in the West near a big city park with a creek flowing through it. In other parts of the country it might be a national park, but here it’s just a place for running, fishing, and dog-walking. Recently, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, and we’ve developed a bad homelessness problem. This summer someone pitched a tent by the creek in this park where camping is clearly not allowed; the tent was about 100 yards from someone’s house.

A typical vagabond, I surmised. But as the days passed, as I took my dog and toddler on our daily stroll, I noticed that it was couple (man and woman), with a dog, who seemed to lay around all day on their mats talking on their cell phones. They were camped about ten feet from water; there are no restrooms in this park. Then I saw that they had a truck that they parked nearby with a couple old bikes in back. The license plates revealed that they live in the next county over. They aren’t really harming anyone, but they’re camped right in the trail by a little swimming hole. I talked to the guy briefly: he was pleasant enough, a bit rough around the edges, asked about fishing in the creek.

It bugged me more than it should have. I wanted to call the police or the park to have them booted. But that felt wrong. Like I should just live and let live. Before I did anything, the couple left.

A few weeks later, I went back to the spot. Now there was a hole filled with toilet paper and cigarette cartons. I did not inspect closely enough to see if the TP had been used. A backpack and some other gear was stashed under a plastic tarp. I had no idea if the mess and the gear belonged to the first people. What I did know was that it made me irrationally furious, white hot with anger, not the least because the sight of toilet paper makes my dog salivate with delight. My first thought was to haul all the trash and the gear to the nearest dumpster—a plan that filled me with self-righteous vengeance, and also the suspicion that I may be an asshole, or at least a person experiencing assholery.

Unsure what to do, I consulted a man with firsthand experience being unhoused on public lands, Daniel Suelo, also known as The Man Who Quit Money, who evaded the law for many years while living in the Utah canyons. I asked him what I should do. He wrote back:

I’ve run into a lot of really trashy, stinky camps, and, of course, I don’t like it. It ruins it for everybody, especially our fellow “unhoused.”  So, should we clear out trashy camps?  It’s a choice between (1) the trauma of somebody losing what little home they have or (2) the inconvenience of a person with a house not having another clean place to walk or play.

I personally know people who’ve had their trashy camps cleared out with no warning, and, naturally, it catapulted them into major trauma, on top of the mental illness they were already suffering. I myself once had my own clean camp by the Colorado River completely cleared out. It sent my life into upheaval. However, for me, not suffering mental illness or traumas, it was par for the course, the kind of risk I knew could happen, and had mentally prepared for.

Though I don’t justify trashy camps, having scolded fellow campers for leaving trash, letting them know they are ruining it for all of us, I still think housed people need to see the lumber yard in their own eye. Housed people create many, many times more trash and environmental destruction than all houseless people put together. Our landfills, trash barges, and oceans of garbage gyres testify to this. But housed people’s trash and environmental destruction is out of sight, out of mind.   

Also, the housed don’t consider how difficult it is to dispose of trash for people without city trash service or without even a vehicle. The unhoused often have to walk miles to throw trash away, and, even when they do find a receptacle, it’s often illegal to dump into it. Add to this the fact that most houseless people suffer mental illness, traumas, and/or addictions.

But, yeah, I’m all for everybody, including the houseless, learning accountability for their own actions. Cops sometimes leave notes at houseless camps, giving them a few days warning to clear out their camp. A fellow citizen could warn them to clear out the trash but not the camp itself.

I returned to the spot in a rain storm. Most of the gear was gone. What remained was a plastic box, like a portable filing cabinet, filled with someone’s valuable objects, soaking in the rain. It was sad. As for the pile of garbage, I’ll wait until my wells of compassion refill, then I’ll go clean it up.

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