YAKIMA – Clothing, a half-inflated floating tube and an ash pit from a warming fire sat just a few feet away from the Yakima River’s edge Thursday morning.
Several yards away, through the cottonwood trees and brush that line the river, sat an empty camp. Clothes hung over fallen trees and garbage was strewn throughout the area.
It was one of many campsites erected along the river by homeless people who are often reluctant to seek help.
The campsites aren’t safe, county officials said.
They are often filled with garbage, human waste and drug needles, posing health and environmental risks, said Lisa Freund, director of Yakima County Public Services.
“We’ve got massive amounts of human waste, bio-hazards, washed down the river every year,” she said.
A lack of funding has prevented any consistent effort to remove these camps from the river’s edge.
Next month, the county’s code enforcement department will embark on what it’s calling the gap-to-gap cleanup, which aims to remove abandoned campsites along a 13-mile stretch of the river from Union Gap to near Selah.
The Yakima Health District is passing along a $60,000 solid-waste grant from the state Department of Ecology, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is providing a $10,000 grant to help fund the cleanup effort.
The cleanup is much needed for habitat and fish restoration projects along the river and the recreational aspects of the Yakima Greenway, which features a pathway, parks and lakes along the Yakima and Naches rivers.
Accumulating trash and feces aren’t the only dangers of having homeless people living in makeshift camps along the river. Warming fires often get out of hand and turn into wildfires. In 2020, a wind-blown warming fire scorched 30 acres of habitat, destroying park equipment and the foundation of the Greenway’s visitor center.
People along the river are living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions as well, county officials have said.
Greenway Executive Director Kellie Connaughton said consistent cleanup efforts are needed to prevent homeless campers from returning and to improve the Greenway’s image.
“There is a perception that the Greenway trail and parks are unsafe – and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
Last year, 79 tons of garbage and other debris were cleaned from such camps along the river. So far this year, 36.3 tons of garbage have been cleaned from the banks of the river.
The river is running high and fast right now, and a majority of campsites have slipped beneath the water. The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for Yakima Valley on Thursday, and upgraded it to a flood warning along the Naches River.
Anticipating high water, code enforcement officers in early spring began posting high-water warning signs warning homeless campers.
“Right now high enough water is preventing us from accessing areas that need to be cleaned up,” said Yakima County Code Enforcement Manager John Walkenhauer.
Fallen logs that formed a makeshift bridge to access an island campsite were under water Thursday morning.
Walkenhauer said he received a call saying campers on the island needed help getting off.
Later, he learned they didn’t want help getting off the island, they just wanted food.
Homeless encampments along the Yakima and Naches rivers have been an issue for years.
Warming fires get out of hand, garbage accumulates and ends up in the river and sometimes the homeless clash with those using the Greenway for recreation.
Those were some of the main issues that prompted county commissioners to approve an ordinance in 2013 banning camping along the river.
But enforcing the ban has been problematic, especially considering a U.S. Supreme Court ruling – Martin v. Boise – that prevents municipalities from uprooting homeless campers without providing an alternative place for them to go.
Code enforcement officers often come across homeless campers but have no authority to remove them, Freund said.
“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room to tell people to get out,” she said. “We’d probably face a lawsuit if we did.”
Walkenhauer said he relies on the outreach from service providers such as Camp Hope – a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in east Yakima – and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, which provides medical services, some housing and respite care to homeless people.
“So there’s resources out there,” he said. “More often than not, in our experience, they don’t take the help.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Camp Hope volunteers partnered with the Greenway on a cleanup project and conducted regular outreach. But budget cuts thwarted some of those efforts.
Losing that level of outreach impacted the Greenway, where many homeless people shied away from shelters for fear of becoming infected with COVID-19, Connaughton said.
Efforts resumed when pandemic-related restrictions were lifted.
“In 2021, when things started to open up, we spent a lot of time cleaning up the aftermath of that,” Connaughton said. “We’ve been playing catch-up and we are now, I would say, ahead of the game.”
Connaughton said the Greenway is working closely with service providers in effort to get people into services. She said the Greenway also is working with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, Yakima police and volunteers to help patrol the Greenway.
A plan also is in the works to clear away overgrown brush and other fuels that can lead to fires. The intent is to reduce the risk of a wildfire spreading to nearby neighborhoods, Connaughton said.
“That’s one reason why getting the riverfront cleaned up” is needed, she said. “There’s a plan being written right now. We’ve got to get this area cleaned up so we don’t lose neighborhoods.”
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