5 Harsh Realities Of Homeless Camps Nobody Talks About
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If you live in a major American city, you've probably seen your fair share of homeless camps. They usually crop up in empty lots, parks, and Big Rock Candy Mountains. City governments generally have them torn down and cleaned up whenever they can. Leaving aside whether or not that's the right way to address homelessness, somebody has to do the work of cleaning those places up. Our source, Carol, did just that. She told us how ...
Sometimes They Clean Up Corpses
"We have found two dead homeless men, and one dead dog. There's a procedure to it. And it's not pleasant."
Having now medaled in the Understatement Olympics, Carol told us about the first corpse she ever tidied up. "There was a row of about 30 tents spilling into the streets, and police had come and taken everyone out. Usually this is when they find bodies, but they must not have been very thorough, because when our lead went into the fourth tent to clean it out, she jumped, looked at me and a few others with wide eyes, and said, 'There's a body.' I peeked in, and there it was. I should have been chilled, but it looked like someone asleep. It probably muted the shock for me. Only later did the whole 'I saw a dead person' thing get to me."
Carol's second encounter with a corpse came while cleaning tents at an expansive camp about to be bulldozed. News crews were present with cameras, and the city was very concerned at the prospect of riots. "An officer ran back before a councilman could give his speech, and he told us that there was a body, and it needed to be removed. We were all thinking, 'Shit, someone died here. We better get the body out an treat it with dignity.' The councilman just looked annoyed. Not sad or shocked, but annoyed that he couldn't announce the bulldozing for another hour or two."
They Also Clean Mountains Of Poo
Activists often protest the closing of homeless camps. That's understandable. We mostly treat the homeless like shit. Society can make Xboxes and spaceships -- we should have a better answer at this point. But we don't. We also don't have solutions for the enormous piles of poop the homeless generate.
"It's the worst part. Usually I'm doing like a river cleanup, and the worse thing I'll see is a single condom or a dead fish. Homeless camps have both piss and shit in anything you can imagine." Porta-potties cost money, and hey, funny question: You know what the homeless don't have a lot of?
Most of the places Carol cleans up make due with a designated pooping area. "But more in the city, there isn't the ground or room for that, and it will be everywhere. There was an alley we were cleaning up that had a dumpster. Sanitation had complained because they couldn't get to this dumpster in almost a year. One of the volunteers was picking stuff up and throwing it away, and opened the dumpster to throw something away. Immediately, the smell of shit went from about a 4 right up to a 10. Our lead went over and looked inside and almost keeled over. 'This dumpster is full of shit!' I didn't want to look, but from the specialty crews they brought in, and the smell, it really was."
Carol also reported numerous bags of shit and bottles of urine. "You know those 20-ounce bottles, or like a cup from Jack in the Box? Yeah, they were there. The fields never had them, but in the city they certainly did. A few times there were, like, bottles with blood. Not a lot, but still enough to notice."
"Overpasses are the worst. When we came in to clean, it always smelled like urine, and you could always see a little trickle of liquid going down off the sidewalk into the road. It could be water, it could be urine. It was almost always both. Street crews would have to come and clean it, and I was told the same method they used to clean up after homeless urine streams was how they would clean up after a car accident that leaked fluid. It was a biohazard."
Conditions at many of these sites are considered public safety violations, with some, like this infamous Seattle camp, upgraded to "inhumane." It's worth noting that there are also some very well-put-together, organized, and funded homeless camps. Those are not the ones Carol is talking about.
"Oh, I've seen rats there. Cockroaches, too. You expect those in any city, but at homeless camps, it's bad. At a few really bad camps, there was a doctor who checked us out for lice and fleas when we left. And this was after we received these special plastic coverings over our clothes."
We know this sounds like a nightmare scenario with no good options, but ... that's only because that's exactly what it is.
They Have To Worry About Protesters
Carol's work is controversial. She regularly encounters protesters, and they rarely listen to her side of the story. Even if she's using airtight logic like I didn't actually close this camp, I'm just here to clean up the corpses and shit.
"A week before a homeless camp cleanup, we'll have refresher training. There are parts on handling things like needles, what to do with property with value. Um, there's a part about biohazards, what can be recycled, what to do when confronted. The biggest part is in ignoring protesters ... I've been spat on by protesters, and I've been heckled by them mercilessly. At a camp in the city, I had to pull out a giant corrugated steel sheet, and at one point it was over my head and would have easily fallen on me. You know what those people were chanting? 'Crush HER. Crush HER. Crush HER.' They wanted me to get injured."
Carol is a volunteer. She helps clean a lot of places in her city, for no other reason than that she cares about making it a better place. Homeless camps are only one part of that. But to the protesters, she might as well be manning the hobo flamethrowers.
"Most of the chants are along the lines of 'Don't do this to the homeless. They're people.' And I sympathize with that. But ... these parts of the city disgusting, and once the out, we had to do something ... why not make it clean again, right?"
She and her colleagues have hit upon one ingenious strategy for keeping the protesters at bay while they work. "Whenever we carry out actual human shit, we keep the bin of it right by the protesters, and it always quiets them down. They go from complaining about us cleaning the camp area to 'Hey, can you move this box of shit away from us?' Our lead plans it like that. Chants will stop, and complaints go from being about the homeless to about the box of poop. If you are annoyed by a protest and you have poop, that stops it. At least in my experience."
They Find Sad Reminders Of The Past
Becoming homeless is like only being able to grab one thing from a burning house. Do you go for the photo albums? Your diploma? Your crate of artisanal small-batch dildos? Many homeless people have to make those decisions every time they move to a new camp. Most of what gets left behind is garbage ... "But sometimes, we're going to find a box, or a small bag of personal mementos they didn't bring with them. It's super depressing. We need to look through it, because if there's an ID or something valuable, we need to give it to the authorities and attempt to track them down. We found about $3,000 in cash once, and we had to try to find the guy who had it, but they never did."
Carol continues: "We'll find photos of the homeless person who was there in happier times. There have been photos of their parents, photos of them younger, wedding photos, photos with their own kids. They once had a successful life, and when they had to leave their camp, they left behind these photos of what had been. I've seen discharge papers from around the time of Vietnam, and I've seen more recent pictures and medals from Iraq or Afghanistan. A few of the guys on the crew are ex-Army, and they are the ones who handle that sort of thing. They are never excited to say, 'I found a Purple Heart.' One time, they were digging through a vet's belongings, hoping to find out who he was, and they said, 'He left behind his Bronze Star!'"
For reference, the Bronze Star is a medal you only get for the kind of heroism that would seem over the top in a Tom Cruise movie. Valuable possessions like that are held by the city, in case the owner wants to claim them. It doesn't happen often.
"There was an older guy. White beard, tan jacket, he had on a baseball cap with a big cardboard bill. He walked in to us cleaning up, ignored the police officers' warning not to come in, and bent inside a makeshift room with an old shower curtain on top. He pulled out a trash bag, and back outside, he rooted through until he got to a big photo. I was on the other side, so I couldn't see what was on it, but he hugged it and started crying, but with no noise. With the police next to us, we asked what it was. Someone who could see asked 'Is that your daughter?' He got up with the bag and said, 'It was my daughter,' and walked away."
They Also Deal With Homeless Pets
Pets help make the misery and pain of life more bearable by being generally better company than anybody truly deserves. Some homeless people are good pet owners. Some aren't. "Many homeless have pets, and no matter how much they care for them, there are always going to be a few left behind. Usually they're cats. We've been told cats are there to keep the rats at bay, but from talking to a few homeless when I wasn't volunteering, they were real pets that they feel a little better about leaving behind, because they can fend for themselves. You felt shitty a few times, leaving when the sun went down. A homeless guy would be calling their pet's name, in the hope that they weren't brought to a shelter. I've left more than one camp that way, talking to other volunteers, while in the background you could hear fainter and fainter calls for a pet."
Cats can handle themselves. Most dogs are pretty lost without people. "There have been a few volunteers who fell in love with an abandoned dog there so much that they've gone to the adoption center afterwards to get them. Like, once at a field cleanup, animal control pulled out a little puppy. It was about four months old. I think it was the Beethoven dog . It kept looking at us with these big eyes. That night, they had to pick a name out of a hat because of how many people wanted to adopt it."
Well, that's as good a note as any to end on, provided you don't want to spend the rest of your day inside a whiskey bottle.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy, journalist, and interviewer for the Personal Experience section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up? Then hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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