Trash on corner of 85th Avenue and International Boulevard near East Oakland homeless encampment

The Healthlessness Of Homelessness

July 25, 2017

The good news is that Oakland appears to have finally turned our attention to the crisis of homelessness in the city.

The bad news is that the impetus for much of this new urgency to “do something” about “the problem” is an odd coalition of those who want to help the homeless and those who want to get rid of them, coalescing around a growing concern to eliminate those homeless camps and tent cities along our streets in our vacant fields and lots and frontage roads, either to eventually get their residents into shelters, first, and then permanent housing, or else to “get these devils hence,” to borrow from Cousin Matthew, either out of the city or just out of our sight.

But the fact is, even though the homeless camps and tent cities have only recently entered the consciousness of most Oakland residents, they are the product of complex social forces that have been building for decades, and continue to build and press against our social fabric. To try to get rid of these camps and tent cities is like trying to mop the water off the bathroom floor without turning off the faucet that caused the bathtub to overflow in the first place. You can mop all you want, the water will continue to flow until the tap is turned shut.

Unfortunately, the tap of social forces that created and continues to create more homeless in Oakland cannot be fixed by some simple twist of hand and metal. Absent a cataclysmic intervention by some major outside forces—such as the world war that put America to work and pulled its economy out of the Depression of the 1930’s—“ending” the forces that created Oakland’s current homeless crisis is going to take some thought, some careful planning, and more than a few decades of hard work that will certainly go past the lifetimes of many of the people reading this piece.

And so, just like with open air drug markets or prostitution strolls, the most pressing call from any community—and the one which often gets translated directly to action by the politicians who represent that community—is to “get them off my corner.” Actually, getting a tent city or homeless camp removed from any given location is easily done. Police clear out the tent city at 85th and International about once every three or four weeks, on a regular schedule. After posting a warning notice several days in advance, the police stand around while city workers pile discarded belongings and trash into trucks, and then a fire truck comes by to use its hoses to wash away whatever residue is left behind on the streets. The camp residents wait around the corner with their preferred stuff in shopping carts and garbage bags and, when the operation is completed and the police and city workers have all left, return to reoccupy the spot they have only temporarily vacated. Come back within an hour, and you would never know that a city “clean-up and evacuation” operation ever took place.

Clearing up a particular site permanently requires a lot more effort and expenditure of city resources, but is doable. The problem is, without a comprehensive plan and program for an overall homeless solution, permanently clearing a particular site or corner only means driving the homeless folks to another site or corner, until they reach one where the community is less organized or less persuasive, the politicians less pressed, and, therefore, where the problem squats and stays.

In other words, there is no quick fix to the homeless camps and tent cities, not until we reach an ultimate solution to what is causing these settlements to spring up in the first place.

But while we are working on long-term solutions, there is an immediate crisis that can be solved in the short run, and must be addressed and attacked now, for the good of us all. And that is the crisis of uncollected waste growing out of the homeless camps. It is a crisis that threatens the health of every citizen of the City of Oakland.

Before this brings a renewal of the “blame it on the homeless” game, some thoughts.

Let us deal with two truisms, both of which are universal to the human condition, regardless of caste or color or nationality, and whether one is the richest of the rich or among the most downtrodden.

First, attribute it to either the vagaries of evolution or the design of whatever creator one believes in, human beings have a decidedly inefficient system of energy intake. Our bodies make use of only a portion of the food and liquid that we consume. The rest is cast off in the form of feces and urine.

Second, modern times have exacerbated what has always been a fact of human life: even the hungry don’t often eat absolutely everything that is put before us. Peels, seeds, plate and package scrapings, and various other leavings (what the old folks used to call “scraps”) are all left behind after every snack or meal.

  Collectively, these two sets of castoffs from our food and liquid consumption make up what we call “waste.” Left untreated or undisposed of or both for even short spaces of time, both types of waste degrade into rancid matter that either pass on diseases on their own or attract disease-causing vermin such as flies or rats.

Folks from the outside observing the tent cities and homeless camps almost always take note of the escalating piles of waste and often unfairly attribute this solely to the general “nastiness” of the camp residents themselves.

 But let’s not get it twisted. Tent city occupants are not androids all manufactured to same specifications. They are folks thrown together from many elements of modern society for many different reasons, the only real condition that they all have in common is that they all occupy a tent city or a homeless camp together on any given day.

And so I have seen some of the nastiest people in the world living in these camps, and at the same time, I have seen the most fastidious. I have seen both men and women pull down their pants or hike up their dresses and panties respectively and urinate or defecate against a wall within a few steps from where they sleep every night, or sometimes directly next to their bedding. I have seen people toss their food leavings into the sidewalk and the street, not caring where they land. And at the same time, I have come out in the early hours just after dawn and seen homeless camp residents collect the trash and garbage that has been strewn about overnight, and sweep down the sidewalk around their makeshift homes, sometimes spreading out a cupful of bleach in advance to get rid of the smells and the waste residue, doing their best under extraordinarily difficult conditions to keep their surroundings clean.

Whichever the case, residents of established communities should be cautioned of looking down our noses at the trash generated by the homeless. Because without the presence of modern waste utilities—both garbage collection and water and sewage—our own neighborhoods would look and feel and smell very similar to these homeless communities.

We in the larger community outside of the camps defecate and urinate in our toilets and hit the handle, and give little thought to what happens after the waste product gets flushed away. We collect our garbage first in plastic bags that generally reside in a plastic container under the kitchen sink and then, when the bags get too full, take them out to the Waste Management containers at the side of our houses until, once a week, set the containers out on the sidewalk so that the Waste Management workers can take it away.

But without EBMUD and Waste Management to take care of it, what would happen to that waste?

Years ago, when I lived for a time back in the deep country, folks had outhouses for “going to the bathroom,” and burnt their garbage in piles a little distance from their houses. That worked in the country. But how many people in the city of Oakland have any idea how to build a working outhouse or maintain it in a sanitary condition, even if such structures and their use weren’t illegal in an urban setting? And burning our garbage in our yards—if we even have a yard—is similarly out of the question.

Absent utilities like EBMUD and Waste Management, we’d have to spend a good portion of our weeks figuring out how to dispose of the waste ourselves. The truth is, most of us would not know how to handle it, any more than the people in the homeless camps and tent cities do.

Most residents of homeless camps and tent cities are far from toilet facilities. And even when such facilities at business establishments are nearby, they are generally banned to anybody but customers. A few of the homeless settlements have portable toilets, but not many. So where, exactly, are these folks supposed to let their body wastes go?

Meanwhile, because they are not tied into the brick-and-mortar residence-based city waste disposal system, waste disposal in the homeless camps and tent cities is not serviced by Waste Management in the manner in which it is serviced in the rest of the city. In locations like the 85th Avenue/International tent city in East Oakland, with which I am most familiar, some arrangement has been made with city officials that if trash is bagged up in proper plastic containers and left on the corner, it will be eventually picked up by city personnel. “Eventually” is the operative word, and many times the bags are not picked up until someone complains to the city.

Besides staying out in the open longer than the trash in our Waste Management outdoor containers, this bagged-up trash on the corner is not nearly as secure, so it is subject to frequent rifling through by rodents and cats and human scavengers, who often tear holes in the bags or leave the tops open so that trash gets spread out over the pavement and out into the gutters and streets.

As should be obvious, this waste and human by-product from the homeless camps and tent cities left out and un-disposed-of in such a manner for so long a time attracts and spreads disease. This happens first among the residents of the tent cities and homeless camps themselves. But many such waste-fermented diseases are airborne, and are carried on the air into the neighborhoods beyond, first in the immediate vicinity of the tent cities and homeless camps, eventually into the general city surrounding.

Does this sound frightening? It should. But unlike the complications of the homeless camps and tent cities themselves, the problem of the waste emanating from these settlements has a clear, if not necessarily “easy,” solution.

First, make portable toilets available at every established tent city and homeless camp in the city, and operate a system to maintain them and keep them clean.

Recent Facebook post on portable toilet at Albany homeless encampment

Second, establish a regular, weekly system of garbage disposal in every established tent city and homeless camp in the city, using the regular closeable hard plastic containers that every Oakland residence has, rather than plastic bags.

Third, establish a regular, city and county-sponsored program of health inspections and mitigations in the tent cities and homeless camps, including health-oriented treatments for the folks living in them, not as an excuse to shut them down—which we’ve already established as a fruitless endeavor in the short run—but as a way to make them healthier places for the people living there.

These things shouldn’t be a substitute for a program to end the conditions that created the homeless camps and tent cities in the first place, but can and should be done while we’re working on that long-term solution.

Yes, this is going to take some money. And yes, this is going to take some time and effort, and some inconvenience. But the health of many of our fellow citizens is at stake. The health of all of us is at stake. And if we don’t put in money or effort for a cause such as that, what are we saving it for?


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at
Writing Pages Of J. Douglas Allen-Taylor