The community’s efforts to keep waterways unpolluted is more important than ever
The byproducts of homeless encampments—mattresses, tents, sleeping bags, food packaging, empty bottles, clothing and human waste—are increasingly common along Chico’s creeks, and the mess is more than unsightly. Many items at these makeshift homes have the potential to pollute the local waterways and habitats downstream.
Members of volunteer cleanup crews, park officials and environmental advocates agree that the problem is worse than ever. They also acknowledge that, in light of the city’s ongoing financial difficulties, the ability to clean up the camps in a timely manner has diminished significantly.
Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said that in the months leading up to the Bidwell Park and Chico Creeks Cleanup last September, there was a dramatic increase in homeless encampments throughout Chico, and despite a lower than expected volunteer turnout, the cleanup removed about twice as much trash from the creeks as the year before.
“Things reached a level that no one could remember,” she said. “It was worse than it had ever been. We saw so many more mattresses, so many more tires, so many of those big, bulky items.”
Mark Gailey, a Chicoan who has volunteered for BEC’s cleanup efforts for nearly 25 years, said in an email that the amount of trash in Chico’s waterways “has seemed to grow exponentially—especially in the last few years. The vast majority of this trash … appears to be from abandoned homeless and transient encampments.”
Volunteers also described certain areas with such high concentrations of fecal matter and urine that “they required a hazmat cleanup,” DiFalco said. “When humans use our waterways as a bathroom, it has an impact on water quality; it has an effect on aquatic wildlife as well as terrestrial and amphibian wildlife.”
At one point last fall, Dan Efseaff, the city’s Parks and Natural Resource manager, said his department had about 70 requests for cleaning up homeless camps within city limits. Efseaff explained that complaints about homeless encampments are grouped with other complaints in the same area for the sake of efficiency. Once a month, his staff and law enforcement will make the rounds, going to the camps and serving what are essentially eviction notices that allow homeless people a few days to collect their belongings and move on.
In some cases, the park rangers return to find the area thoroughly cleaned. In others, the scene is not pretty. “I’ll be blunt,” Efseaff said. “A lot of these camps are pretty disgusting—there’s a lot of fecal matter.”
Efseaff said that prior to the city’s reorganization and financial cutbacks, the Chico Police Department and Code Enforcement played larger roles in the notification process. Now, as the resources of both agencies are stretched thin, the task has been left mostly to the Parks Department, though periodic help has been provided by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
“They have not been able to help out on a regular basis,” Efseaff said. “It’s definitely been a struggle for us.”
Brad Montgomery, executive director of the Torres Community Shelter, has visited a number of camps in Chico. Some of them, he said, are surprisingly tidy, while others are a huge mess. “When you take the challenges some of these people have and the challenges of living in that environment, obviously some are not going to be [organized],” he said. “I don’t mean to be facetious, but it’s not like you’ve got shelving, cupboards and closets to put stuff away in.”
Since last fall’s cleanup, DiFalco said, she has been encouraged by ongoing discussions between city and county organizations about how to stay on top of the issue. Some locals, including a group of neighbors along Lindo Channel, have organized cleanup efforts of their own, while student volunteers from Chico State and Butte College have also proved helpful.
“You’re never going to solve it, but you do need to keep responding to it so it doesn’t get out of control,” she said. “The city shouldn’t be expected to do it on their own, nor should volunteers or nonprofits.”