In the three years I’ve been on the Del Norte Coast, I’ve photographed and reported on many cleanups of areas where homeless camps had been established and inhabited for long periods of time.
From areas off Elk Valley Road to U.S. 101 at South Beach to the areas behind the Jedediah Smith Shopping Center to the wooded area between U.S. 101 and Walmart, I’ve watched volunteers fill dumpsters with everything from discarded clothing, bedding and blankets, to pallets, shopping carts and bicycle parts.
However, one local area will require much more than a small crew and a dumpster to clean up and proves to be a recurring headache for the property owner.
Just off the Washington Boulevard onramp, a hole cut in a chain link fence leads down a trail to one of the most polluted campsites I’ve seen in almost 20 years of reporting.
Del Norte County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bill Steven accompanied me into the area, which is part of an interconnecting maze of trails that stretch over the eight acres of wooded area.
Beyond the treeline, out of sight from the highway, is a community of makeshift tents, constructed of tarps, pallets, plywood, ropes and scraps. Steven and I held our breath at times, to the smell of what I have to believe was rotten feces as we stepped over refuse.
At the first clearing, three things are immediately noticeable: the number of shopping carts, the number of bicycle parts and the sheer volume of trash.
Carts were clustered in some places with as many as a dozen piled together. Others overflowed with trash and more seemed just scattered about.
Bicycle frames and parts were in every corner of the camps, hanging on tents, in trees, on the ground and among the trash. None were fully assembled and some appeared to have been recently dismantled. Bike wheels and tires were everywhere.
Finally, the trash. In some places, mounds of wet garbage were the size of cars. Mostly consisting of food packaging, wet clothing, pillows and bedding. The trash was the prominent feature of most camps.
Steven noted how some of the garbage spilled over into water at the bottom of the small valley. He also noted how the hillside had been essentially landscaped to created terraces for tents and trash.
“When it rains, you can tell where all the water goes,” he said, pointing at the trash piles and then at the valley’s bottom.
Every clearing along the interconnected trails looked similar, piled up with trash and tarp structures, some smelling worse than others.
An owner’s struggle
Property owner Sparky Countess pulled no punches in talking about the people who illegally pollute and inhabit his property.
“I want to make it clear right from the start that I have no empathy for these low-life scumbags,” Countess said, adding he plans to hire someone to clean up trash and clear trees on the land.
Countess said he has offered inhabitants money, bags and other means to clean up the area but is met with resistance and hostility. He warned not to go into the area, as he and others have been challenged for doing so.
Countess said no trespassing signs are regularly ripped out, making it appear the property is not posted.
Countess said when he confronts inhabitants, many lie and claim they have permission from the property owner.
He said the activity has gone on for years but has gotten worse in the past few years. Countess said the sheriff’s office does what it can to move people along but said the Del Norte County District Attorney’s office won’t prosecute people for littering and trespassing.
“So we run them off and they just go somewhere else,” he said.
Countess noted a recent decision by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled people could not be criminalized for resting or sleeping in public places.
“The city was worried about that,” he said, “but when it comes to private property owners, where is our protection? We don’t have any.”
What to do
Countess repeated a sentiment expressed at many public meetings and town halls.
“This county needs a designated area where they can go, with chemical toilets, dumpsters and campsites that can be monitored,” he said.
Countess said he hopes to get his land cleared out and cleaned up by the end of June.