16 percent of homeless people in the greater Los Angeles area are families. A considerable number of these families are headed up by a single parent, oftentimes a mother. Some of these families are able to obtain temporary “housing” through homeless shelters and other temporary or transitional housing programs. With that noted, that is not the case for all homeless families in the Los Angeles area and throughout Southern California.
A significant percentage of homeless families “reside” on the streets and in locations not intended for human habitation. This includes families on the street who take refuge in what are known as homeless encampments.
A homeless encampment, sometimes referred to as a tent city (even when no tents are present), is a congregation of homeless people. A homeless encampment can be any size, from a few individuals to over 100. Unlike in years gone by, homeless encampments are no longer found in Skid Row and downtown, but they can be seen across the greater Los Angeles area and throughout other communities in Southern California.
I experienced what I can only call a life-changing set of events while involved with a homeless encampment cleanup. These events involved a single mother and her 10-year old boy, individuals I encountered while involved in a homeless encampment cleanup.
Drugs and Homelessness
Our team at Eco Bear has learned a considerable amount through our work in homeless encampment cleanup. Like a majority of people, members of my team and I have long believed that the abuse of addiction to mind altering substances resulted in many people becoming homeless. Indeed, there is a considerable number of people who’ve ended up homeless because of drug abuse or addiction issues.
What I did not fully appreciate until I started providing homeless encampment cleanup services is that there is a notable percentage of homeless individuals who developed an issue with drug abuse or addiction after they ended up living on the streets. In other words, becoming homeless is the precursor to some individuals abusing or becoming addicted to mind-altering substances.
The Health Hazards of Homeless Encampments
Health hazards exist at homeless encampments for a number of reasons. First, those people who live in a homeless encampment have limited access to sanitary facilities, including toilets. As a result, at some homeless encampments, people are resigned to defecate and urinate out of doors, resulting in exposed hazardous waste in the form of feces and urine.
Second, garbage accumulates at a homeless encampment over time. This can include remnants of food items that decay and rot over time and can become potentially hazardous. Finally, at many homeless encampments, there will be individuals within the population you abuse or are addicted to some type of illicit drug. Oftentimes, this includes drugs like heroin or meth which are injected in some cases. Contaminated hypodermic needles used in this process end up discarded on the ground, in the bushes, and so forth. These needles many times are shared. If a user suffers from some sort of bloodborne bacteria or virus, that can be spread through a discarded needle at or near a homeless encampment.
Homeless encampments present health hazards on two fronts, which is the reason why my company is called in to undertake homeless encampment cleanup. On the one hand, they present potential health hazards of the kind just discussed to people who live in a camp. On the other hand, homeless encampments can present health hazards to the community at large. In our cleanup efforts, we are focused on protecting both group so people from health hazards.
The Mechanics of Homeless Encampment Cleanup
There exist significant misperceptions about what is involved in a homeless encampment cleanup. Many people in the community at large believe that a homeless encampment cleanup focuses on the elimination of a particular camp. There have been periods of time in some communities that homeless encampment cleanup did mean camp elimination or eradication. That is no longer the case, at least in communities in Southern California.
Communities in Southern California, including across the city and county of Los Angeles, undertake homeless encampment cleanup to remove garbage and hazardous waste. This effort is counterbalanced with the objective of protection what property homeless people do have when living in a homeless encampment. The return of those people who live in a particular encampment is anticipated when the cleaning is complete.
A Single Mother, a Young Boy, and a Brush with Death
During the first hour of this particular homeless encampment cleanup project, I came upon a cardboard lean-to tucked at the edge of the camp. I was cleaning up garbage around the lean-to when I heard what clearly was the yap of a puppy coming from inside the makeshift shelter. I glanced inside the lean-to and saw a boy of about 10 years holding a little black puppy. They were sitting next to something that looked to be a person covered with a sheet.
The boy’s eyes locked with my own and he immediately started to cry. “Can you help us, mister?” the boy asked of me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked of him.
“It’s my Mom,” he replied, and pulled the sheet away to reveal a woman who didn’t appear to be conscious and suffered from obviously labored breathing.
I immediately telephoned 911 on my mobile. I checked the mother’s pulse, which was slow. She definitely was not conscious.
The boy didn’t share with me what I later learned. The mother was a heroin addict. She had overdosed on the dangerous drug but was alive.
One point sped through my mind. What I was experiencing at the moment was not a unique situation. On a daily basis, people from all walks of life were faced with individuals who had overdosed on an array of different types of drugs. That included abusers and addicts that overdosed with their children nearby.
In a relatively short period of time, paramedics and the police were at the scene. They quickly had their mother on the way to the hospital. The police tended to the immediate needs of the young boy. When they prepared to leave with him, I took comfort in hearing them assure the boy he could keep his puppy with him. I rather imagined a boy faced with a mother rushed to emergency and the threat of loosing his puppy would be more than a young child could bear.
My team and I went about the homeless encampment project for the remainder of the day. We heard nothing more about the woman taken to the hospital nor about her son and his puppy – that is we didn’t hear anything more that day or for many days to come.
As is the case with so many things in life, even events like that at the homeless encampment my company was cleaning, the incident with the mom, boy, and puppy became a memory. About six months after that particular homeless encampment cleanup, I was going through our mail. Amongst the bills and solicitations, there was a handwritten envelope obviously containing a greeting card. I opened that piece of mail first.
Inside was a pretty thank you card. After reading a few lines, I immediately knew the card was from the unconscious mother we came upon during the homeless encampment cleanup. Turns out, she successfully completed treatment, had obtained a job, and she and her son – and his puppy – now had permanent housing … a home to call their own.
Yes, the words of the notes were moving and gratifying. But, what really moved my heart was the photo she included. It was a picture of the mother, her son, and the pooch (now grown to a full-grown dog). They were sitting in front of a Christmas tree, with brilliant smiles on their faces.
A truly happy ending …