50 tons of trash collected as ‘unintended environmental impact’ of homelessness

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More than 50 tons of trash has been removed around New Hanover County related to homeless populations leaving behind belongings and not having a trash pickup service. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — When a group of people are living outside without the conveniences of garbage pickup, it’s inevitable litter will accumulate; however, the amount of trash, as well as the efforts behind removing it, come at a cost.

READ MORE: ‘No trespassing’ enforcement at MLK, Kerr Avenue homeless encampment begins next week

ALSO: Trespassing up as homeless population scatters: Officials differ on how to proceed

In the course of about a year in New Hanover County, officials from multiple organizations and governments have gathered trash that equals more than 100,000 pounds — equivalent to 50 tons, the same weight as a Boeing 747 jetliner, military tanks and an adult whale. It has been picked up from various locations countywide where homeless individuals camp.

Eighty percent recently was cleared from an encampment at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Kerr Avenue. However, other areas around town have also been targeted for cleanup efforts by North Carolina Department of Transportation, New Hanover County and Wilmington Downtown Inc. Cumulatively, the entities spent at least $40,000 on litter pickup and cleaning services, with nearly $200,000 of WDI’s budget allocated to ambassador work to assist in litter pickup in the municipal services district of downtown.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation — part owner of the recently cleared Martin Luther King Parkway and Kerr Avenue encampment — spent six hours and $6,000 to remove 26,000 pounds of trash during one cleanup in September.

After posting “no trespassing” signs on the land Oct. 18 — up to roughly 100 individuals were living there — NCDOT allowed a week grace period before enforcement was to begin for Wilmington Police Department officers to clear the site. NCDOT returned Oct. 25 for a thorough pickup and crews have collected another roughly 40,000 pounds of trash, costing up to $15,000.

But the work is not yet finished.

“The number of days, pounds and cost will go up,” NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said Thursday.

She added NCDOT intends to plant a wildflower bed in the area; the property will be used for a future interchange project.

NCDOT also took on cleanup efforts last fall under the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge on Third Street downtown, another state-owned location where the agency chose to begin enforcing no trespassing due to the congregation of homeless individuals. 

CATCH UP: ‘No trespassing’: Officials lay down the law, pose further restrictions on frequented homeless encampments

In January — a week before county commissioners voted on an ordinance to ban sleeping on county-owned property — NCDOT placed no trespassing signs at the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge. It was a joint effort with Wilmington Downtown Inc., the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and Cape Fear Community College, with officials citing public safety as a reason.

Prior to the enforcement, NCDOT had already picked up 11,500 pounds of trash, costing the state nearly $7,000. Once individuals were cleared out from living under the bridge, NCDOT went back and collected another 12,770 pounds of refuse.

NCDOT began enforcing no trespassing at the MLK and Kerr Avenue encampment last month. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

The impact is inevitable as many unhoused people have personal items that are exposed to the elements, such as clothing and blankets, which tend to degrade more quickly. Also the convenience of pre-made food, since unhoused individuals don’t have kitchens, leaves behind takeout containers and plenty of single-use plastic utensils as a result, Rob Clark explained. 

Clark is the water quality programs manager for Cape Fear River Watch. Though CFRW is focused primarily on protecting the Cape Fear River and its adjoining creeks through monthly cleanups, Clark said while working in those areas, he would come across trash he said was likely left behind where unsheltered individuals gathered.

Single-use plastic is 85% of what he finds during community-wide litter patrols. Plastics in the creeks and rivers can have negative impacts on aquatic organisms, leading to increased bacteria levels, he said. 

According to the EPA plastics are in the top 10 items most likely found in waterways. As a result, animals can become entangled in debris and risk suffocating or drowning. Many species also mistake plastic debris for food or inadvertently ingest it while swimming; it can damage their digestive tracts.

While officials often cite environmental concerns as the reason to break up encampments, Clark views it differently.

“When you sweep camps, if there is no housing for them to go into or any plan in place, you still will see that inevitable accumulation of litter, but now instead of having it in one area, it is spread out all over the county,” Clark said. “The disbursement of these camps has an unintended environmental impact.”

Encampments are currently located in the woods near J.C. Roe Center, close to Shipyard Boulevard and River Road, as well as near Barclay Point at 17th Street Extension and Independence Boulevard, according to Wilmington Police Department Lt. Greg Willett. Another wooded area near Target, aside from the shuttered MLK/Kerr Avenue encampment, also houses individuals.

Last month, state and local law enforcement posted no trespassing signs and cleared the MLK/Kerr Avenue camp, with people leaving behind personal belongings not easily transferable. Shopping carts, tents, tarps, TVs, generators and furniture were clumped in piles throughout the nearly 2-acre wooded tract.

“People got two years of their life out here,” one man told Port City Daily on Oct. 18, as he was filling a generator with gas so individuals could charge their phones before leaving. 

Another woman said she needed more time to pack up her belongings.

Everyone who went on the record with Port City Daily asked for anonymity.

It was the last day before police began enforcing penalties. As homeless individuals were preparing to relocate, some expressed frustration at the accumulation of items, nowhere to put their trash and a lack of a proper bathroom. 

“Everybody says they want to extend a hand to humanity, but it’s all hearsay, a lot of hoopla,” one homeless man said.

Some of the homeless people had lived on the property for more than two years. All the individuals PCD spoke to said they did not know where they were going to go next and most had no way of carrying their items with them.

Clark built relationships with people staying on the property over his year-plus of doing volunteer cleanups. During that time, he and others were able to remove and properly dispose of 14,308 pounds of litter from the area. He dedicated four to five hours per month, with the help of five to six volunteers, totaling roughly 70 hours.

He delivered trash bags to the site for people to clean up after themselves as MLK/Kerr Avenue’s encampment began to grow. Clark noted the campers were helpful in gathering the trash, piling it at the front of the property for easy, accessible pickup.

Typically 40 volunteers gather 1,000 pounds of trash as part of CFRW’s monthly cleanups across the downtown region. Clark said he had only a handful of volunteers help at the MLK site, but as a small group they were able to collect the same amount due to the community “buy-in,” since individuals living there took ownership of keeping their spaces clean.

“It wasn’t really that folks didn’t care,” Clark clarified. “They very much did care, there just wasn’t infrastructure there.”

“I tell folks to not take out their trash for a month and see how much they end up accumulating without their weekly service,” Clark added.

One woman living at the encampment was grateful for trash pickup — though she didn’t know who was actually behind it. She stated she wished it had been more frequent and also pointed out the campers weren’t allowed to burn anything, so they were “basically living among trash.”

“It made us look like we were trashing this place up,” she said.

She said she had been asking for Porta-Johns on the site to improve sanitation and health, adding it would have been helpful. NCDOT used a contractor to bring in backhoes to clean up human waste after the encampment was cleared, according to Haviland.

Clark said as the encampment population “got bigger and bigger,” keeping up with the growing rubbish proved difficult. With one truck and a trailer, there was only so much he could retrieve. 

“We were trying to help fill a role, a niche role,” he said. “We were working with folks, not only for protecting the integrity of the environment but so they have a safe, clean environment to live in.”

“I think this is important framing for people to understand so they do not just see unhoused folks as a source of litter,” Clark added. 

Clark’s view is the community as a whole has a litter issue. CFRW focuses its litter pickup efforts downtown due to the density of the population, increase of impervious surface and proximity to the Cape Fear River.

CFRW is not the only organization focused on cleanup. From the river to Fifth Avenue and Ann Street, north to Isabel Holmes Bridge, considered the municipal services district, Wilmington Downtown Inc. plays a role in managing the area with staff assigned to enhance its cleanliness and safety.

Since January, WDI ambassadors have received 823 maintenance requests relating to homelessness. WDI has addressed 106, some of which have included biohazard and litter removal, which has resulted in 395 bags of trash, totaling more than 100 hours served by its ambassadors. 

WDI vice president Christina Haley couldn’t pinpoint the costs of these efforts. Ambassador pay makes up 33% of the $584,258 MSD budget to take care of tasks, also including pressure washing and graffiti removal. Though they are not limited to servicing only areas with homeless populations. 

Haley said the ambassadors — who are also hospitality liaisons, network with businesses, assist motorists and handle streetlight outages — will be dedicating more time to cleanup due to the rise in more service requests.

Outside of the MSD, City of Wilmington spokesperson Lauren Edwards said city staff does routine maintenance and cleanups on city-owned property but has not specifically targeted any homeless encampments this year.

The county, on the other hand, has undergone two different cleanup efforts to address debris left behind by unsheltered individuals. While its litter crew and parks and gardens team work daily to remove trash from visible roadways and keep county-owned spaces clear, county staff has directly worked with cleanup of homeless encampments.

New Hanover County contracted out work for $12,100 to pressure wash and remove trash from the downtown public library and parking deck on Second Street. The location was a popular area for the homeless to congregate until county commissioners voted in February to forbid sleeping on county-owned property, in turn forcing those staying there to disperse to other areas.

New Hanover’s litter management crew also routinely addresses illegal dump sites, one of which was classified as garbage from a homeless encampment under the off-ramp from the Isabel Holmes Bridge at MLK and Third Street earlier this year. According to spokesperson Alex Riley, six hours of labor at $17 per hour were paid to remove 800 pounds of trash.

“Keeping county-managed and high-traffic public spaces clean and safe remains an ongoing commitment,” Riley said. “Additional efforts to address hazardous or unsightly situations in the unincorporated areas of the county will be discussed as needed.”

As Clark noted, another encampment is inevitable to spring up.

A woman and man gathering their belongings Oct. 18 when PCD walked through the MLK and Kerr Avenue encampment said they were told by Wilmington police officers they could stay indefinitely. 

“We can kill that [rumor] right here,” WPD Lt. Greg Willet said. “They’ve known the whole time they shouldn’t be out here.”

Another man pointed out there was nowhere to turn since shelters were full.

“Unless you get locked up, there’s no resources,” he said.

A woman who had lived in the encampment on and off for the past two years was set up in a large tent, fully outfitted with a living room and TV.

“They’ve run us off anywhere else in Wilmington,” she said. “This is supposed to be the only place for the homeless.”

Clark said when people are congregated in an area, it’s easier to build relationships and also collect the accumulation of litter in one place. He added without a real long-term sustainable solution, the cycle will continue and litter will scatter. 

While the answer is likely outside the scope of CFRW’s mission, Clark intends to assist where he can. He plans to turn his attention to property surrounding the area’s largest shelter, Good Shepherd, where there is high-volume foot traffic.

“We hope the work we’re doing is helpful for other folks working on a permanent, ethical solution,” he said. “I see us as a small part of a larger argument for a more sustainable and just solution to this crisis. We cannot make the argument because the solutions fall outside of our mission; however, by doing this work I am hoping it provides data and leverage for the organizations who can help solve this issue.”

Trash once consolidated in one area for easier clean-ups now will scatter throughout the county, according to Cape Fear River Watch’s Rob Clark. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

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