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Sean Thomas carries an abandoned bucket to trash cans set up outside the encampment where he lives in Richmond. Thomas is one of several employees working on SOS! Richmond’s Streets Team, and said police officers told him they have “noticed improvement” since the group started operating in the area. Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential

Richmond’s unhoused are uniting to fight illegal dumping

on October 5, 2020

Every day, Sean Thomas walks out of his RV on North Castro Street with an empty black trash bag. 

He finds a rolling grey trash can, secures the bag and gets to work picking up old tires, blankets and litter from the train tracks behind his encampment.

Thomas is part of the Streets Team, a group of unhoused people working with Safe Organized Spaces (SOS!) Richmond to pick up trash and lead community-building efforts at encampments. Thomas, like other members of the community network, has a vision of housed and unhoused people living in a harmonious, safe environment.

But Richmond, where he lives, is notorious for illegal dumping and litter – a decades-long problem driven by private and commercial interests looking for places to offload their trash for free. Illegally established dump sites encourage continued dumping, and so far this year, 2,650 dumping complaints have been filed in Richmond – 343 more than the same time last year, according to data from the city.

So, creating a harmonious, safe environment starts with picking up trash.

“People are starting to band together,” Thomas said. “This whole street used to be filled up with garbage, just from beginning to end because this is where people would dump, and it’s come a long way. The Streets Team is a big part of it.”

Amanda Jenkins and Sean Thomas work together to pull a bag of trash to the curb, where it will be picked up and properly disposed of.

Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential
Amanda Jenkins and Sean Thomas work together to pull a bag of trash to the curb, where it will be picked up and properly disposed of.
Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential

Daniel Barth, the operational leader of SOS! Richmond, said the group’s efforts beautify the city and help increase safety in places where unhoused people live – often the same areas where old mattresses, mangled car parts and bags of trash are dumped.

“People dump there because it’s too expensive to take trash to Republic Services,” he said, referring to Richmond’s trash collection agency, which charges more at its transfer stations than public transfer stations in nearby cities. At Republic Services’ Golden Bear Transfer Station in Richmond, offloading a ton of trash costs a minimum of $151.25, while Berkeley’s transfer station charges a minimum of $126.

Barth works with a small team of employees and volunteers to get encampments and surrounding areas “back to zero” trash so that residents can maintain sanitation. SOS! Richmond pays unhoused people to be “safety guardians,” tasking them with cleaning their neighborhoods and protecting their areas from illegal dumping.

The Streets Team is continuing to clean the area around a RV encampment on North Castro Street. Two of its members, Amanda Jenkins and Sean Thomas, live there.

Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential
The Streets Team is continuing to clean the area around a RV encampment on North Castro Street. Two of its members, Amanda Jenkins and Sean Thomas, live there.
Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential

“We band together to let them know … ‘You’re putting our livelihood in jeopardy coming in here,’” Thomas said. “‘Go to the dump.’”

Ultimately, Barth said the team’s efforts create employment opportunities and encourage community building.

“If we can show that homeless folks themselves can be the ones that actively cleanup, which is what we’re demonstrating, then neighbors find respect,” Barth said. “[They] have respect for that effort and for the pride that we give back into the community.”

Amanda Jenkins, who lives in an RV in the same encampment as Thomas, said the group’s efforts also build goodwill with the police department and city officials. Jenkins works with the Streets Team to coordinate trash cleanups within the community and organize outreach to encampments across the city.

Amanda Jenkins stands near her truck, which broke down last week. She is working to repair it and hopes to make a run to the dump to dispose of trash soon.

Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential
Amanda Jenkins stands near her truck, which broke down last week. She is working to repair it and hopes to make a run to the dump to dispose of trash soon.
Credit: Sasha Hupka/Richmond Confidential

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure these things out,” she said. “If you don’t clean up and you don’t do these things, they’re not going to help you and we want their help … it’s give and take, you know?”

Through those connections, the team works to battle stereotypes surrounding unhoused individuals. Lahoma Dossantos, a Streets Team member who lives in a tent in Point Richmond, said she hopes to set an example through her work and change the way unhoused individuals are perceived.

“Just give us a little bit of love,” she said. “That’s all you’ve got to do.”

(Lead photo: Sean Thomas carries an abandoned bucket to trash cans set up outside the encampment where he lives in Richmond. Thomas is one of several employees working on SOS! Richmond’s Streets Team, and said police officers told him they have “noticed improvement” since the group started operating in the area. Photo by Sasha Hupka for Richmond Confidential.)

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