YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. - Mountains of garbage, used needles and human waste line the Yakima River from Union Gap to Selah. These things are left by people illegally camping in the areas.
While Yakima County has been making the effort to clean up abandoned encampments over the last five years, this year, they'll have some more money backing them in what they're calling the Gap to Gap clean up efforts.
The county received two grants. The Yakima Health District (YHD) passed on a $60,000 waste management grant from the Department of Ecology to the county for waste clean up efforts. The Department of Fish and Wildlife provided another $10,000 grant.
The Communications Director for YHD, Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez, said the waste and garbage on the side of the river often flows into it, which poses health risks to people using the river in different ways.
"We do know that it is a public health hazard and so it's always important to clean this up," Badilllo-Sanchez said.
It also affects the wildlife in the river.
The Director of Public Services for the county, Lisa Freund, said the grants will allow the county to pay for wages of clean up staff and buy the equipment needed to properly clean.
"Biohazard equipment to actually remove those types of waste safely because we don't want to endanger staff or the many volunteers that help with these cleanups," Freund said.
The Executive Director of the Yakima Greenway Kellie Connaughton said a small portion of the clean up efforts will be on the Greenway. According to her, people often see the trail as a dangerous place because of the homeless people that choose to camp there.
However, the Greenway has partnered with Camp Hope for a long time to clear abandoned encampments along the trail. Connaughton said while during the pandemic, camping increased, it's begun to go down again since the clearing of camps returned.
Connaughton said another focus of the clean up project will be clearing debris that could be a fire hazard.
"We eliminate a lot of the opportunity for wildfires to happen here, as what happened in 2020, will ultimately help prevent abandoned campfires or things of that nature form going aery," Connaughton said.
I reached out to the Yakima Fire Department to talk more about fire hazards along the Greenway but no one was available to speak with me.
The Director of Camp Hope Michael Kay said his residents like helping clean up encampments and other trash along the path because it helps them learn skills they can later use to find jobs.
"It just gets them back into that routine of having a purpose," Kay said.
Kay added his residents will likely participate in these larger clean up efforts too.
Freund said homeless people that illegally camp along the river often like to be left alone, so she hopes the constant clearing of abandoned camps will deter them from camping near the river and hopefully into shelter.
Chelsea Bell the adult shelter director at the Union Gospel Mission said while the clean up efforts are great, it likely won't draw more people to shelter but instead push them to move somewhere else.
"The folks that we see tend to see camping tend to be committed to their lifestyle," Bell said.
However, all the parties involved in the clean up efforts seem to be in agreement that it's necessary for the reputation of the county and to eliminate health concerns.
Freund said the county will start to plan clean ups once the river levels go down and people can have access to those campsites. She added the clearing of trash and encampments will likely take a few months.