MONROE — Nearly 100 volunteers gathered on the banks of the Skykomish River on Saturday to pick up garbage.
This wasn’t a typical trash cleanup. The site, just south of the Lewis Street Bridge near Monroe, was a former homeless encampment.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office had gone in Dec. 17 and removed about a dozen people camping there. Deputies had visited the site several times in the fall to try to get some of the people into detox or other treatment services.
None of them accepted the offer, said Deputy Bud McCurry, part of the Sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods unit.
“Once you get them off the property, you’ve got a huge garbage problem,” McCurry said.
Because the encampment was on privately owned land, it was the owner’s responsibility to clean it up. The state Department of Ecology had given the owners 15 days do that.
The encampment was composed of several distinct campsites in the trees along the river.
It’s a relatively small encampment compared with others in cities where people congregate to use drugs, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Huri.
“For this community it’s a very big camp,” Huri said.
“We’re cleaning up waterways, trash, homeless camps, things fishermen leave behind,” said Jarrod Kirkley, the group’s founder.
The property owners, the Reiner family, have been very supportive, he said, and donated money to RiverJunky.
The group is notified of potential cleanup sites via a telephone hotline, 866-RVR-JNKY.
“People call in. I send one of our coordinators to scout the area,” Kirkley said.
So far the organization has cleaned up campsites along the Cowlitz, Kalama and Puyallup rivers. They’ll be doing another cleanup March 4 along the Kalama and a nearby stretch of the Columbia River.
On Saturday, with snow flurries in the air, volunteers came in from all over the state. Kirkley is from the Silver Lake area in Cowlitz County. Others came from as far as Wenatchee and Vancouver, Wash.
“I did their Puyallup cleanup. That was just one camp,” said Danielle Arrasmith, of North Bend.
She worked a patch of mud that had four tents and a pile of clothes and trash. Within an hour, all that was left was a burn pile, which she and another volunteer sifted through with yard rakes and shovels. A couple of syringes were pulled out and left for someone equipped with a special disposable box for needles and similar dangerous materials, although the RiverJunky leaders had done a sweep earlier in the morning to try and pick up as many needles as possible before the rest of volunteers arrived.
Other clearings were little more than piles of soiled tents, clothing, bottles and cans, broken furniture, building materials, bicycle parts, batteries and other random garbage.
In a few hours, the area would be picked clean, with a just a few small bits of paper or other missed trash the only signs there had ever been something there.
“I’ve seen this stuff walking trails in Renton. You see such stuff everywhere,” Arrasmith said. “A lot of us do this in our spare time anyway.”
In another part of the woods, Tiffany Hoenshell was going through another campsite with a trash picker.
It’s sad seeing how people lived in those conditions, the Monroe woman said. She volunteers with Take the Next Step, a local drop-in center for homeless and low-income people, but this is the first time she had worked on a project of this size.
“I try to see the silver lining. It brings communities together to do stuff like this,” Hoenshell said.
About 90 minutes after the group started, a tall steel bin was filled almost to the rim with bags of garbage.
“There’s 10,000 pounds of trash in there right now, and we’ve already done a dump run,” Kirkley said. He estimated the volunteers would easily haul out 20,000 pounds when they were finished.
Monroe resident Jill Branbaugh and her son, Joel Lidstrom, quickly filled bags at one of the campsites. They didn’t mind, she said, because when they moved into their house, squatters had been trashing it for several years beforehand.
“We had 17 truckloads of somebody else’s crap, so we’re used to this,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified the property where the cleanup occurred.