Tahoe groups work to clean homeless camps, find people services

Laney Griffo
A homeless camp off Winnemucca Ave. / Provided


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Homeless encampments are an ugly reality for cities and South Lake Tahoe is no exemption. But there are efforts by local agencies to not only clean up messy camps but to get help for the people living in them.

Clean Tahoe is a non-profit in South Lake that works on litter and trash management and public outreach. It was started in 1988 to most address illegal dumping issues that became more prevalent. Since then, it has morphed and one of things they’ve had to do more of is clean ups of homeless encampments.

Clean Tahoe is contracted with the city of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County so it coordinates with whatever agency’s jurisdiction the camp is in.

But before Clean Tahoe can go into the camp to clean it up, the residents of the camp must be given two weeks to evacuate. That’s where STACS comes in.

The South Tahoe Alternative Collaborative Services is a collaboration between the cities’ 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 will coordinate with the homeless coalition before giving the eviction notice so the coalition is able to reach out and get those people connected with services.

Homeless Coalition Executive Director Cheyenne Purrington works hard to get people in the camps into permanent living situations. Through Project Homekey, the coalition has purchased motels to move homeless people into. Despite not having the Warm Room this year, Purrington said they saw a 30% increase in people getting access to shelter.

After they’ve been given proper notice, Clean Tahoe goes in with bags and gloves and starts cleaning.

Kathleen Sheehan, executive director of Clean Tahoe said this is the depressing part of the job.

“For a long time, I’ve struggled with it because you want to place blame because you’re seeing these beautiful areas be trashed and for me, it made me really think about my own consumption,” Sheehan said, adding that staff have found items they’ve thrown out or donated among the items at the camps.

Sheehan said because they’ve been given notice, the camp residents have taken their important personal items with them so what’s left is all trash. For example, because they don’t have access to washing machines, a lot of times once clothes get too dirty, they are just tossed aside.

So, the first thing Clean Tahoe does is gather all the clothing up into one pile. Sheehan has seen some interesting items in the piles left after the clothes are gone including Nancy Drew books and a box of records. Sheehan said they see a lot of food trash, empty propane tanks and batteries. There are also the more unpleasant items such as human feces and used needles.

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

Staff cleaning up a camp near Montreal Road / Provided

While that all sounds unpleasant 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 personal dignity aspect, it’s not just an environmental or visual problem,” Purrington said.

However, oftentimes, when one camp is cleaned up, the residents move their belongings to a different area to set up camp. In the 2019/20 fiscal year, Clean Tahoe cleaned up about 36 homeless encampments but many of those were in repeat areas, such as the meadow behind Grocery Outlet.

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

She also said she’d prefer the camp doesn’t get moved, especially during the pandemic because the risk of spread is increased.

Still, there is an environmental impact of the camps, not just because of people living in fragile ecosystems but because wildlife have easy access to the things in the camps. Purrington, however, reminds people that the environmental aspect can’t be solved until the human aspect is.

“We are involved in a very dirty part of it, but my heart goes out to anyone that’s 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. Both Stevenson and Purrington said they’ve seen a real positive impact from STACS. Stevenson said the SLTPD is seeing less mental health and drug related calls.

Purrington said Barton has been receiving less repeat offenders at the hospital and the homeless coalition has been working to get people the documents they need (birth certificate, I.D. etc.) and get them into permanent housing.

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