Crews from a environmental cleanup company are tackling the tons of garbage left behind by homeless encampments in the city of Kent’s Mill Creek Canyon.
In just one area of the 107-acre park that stretches up the East Hill from downtown, crews from Clean Harbors Environmental Services picked up 200 cubic yards (135 tons) of trash, 70 shopping carts and needles to fill a 20-gallon container, city Deputy Parks Director Brian Levenhagen told the City Council at its Nov. 10 Committee of the Whole meeting. It took a crew of six about 20 days to gather and remove all of those items.
“I went out there just after they started and when they finished and the difference was amazing,” Levenhagen said.
Tim Brown, a Kent resident who has worked since 2015 to improve the canyon and decried the homeless encampments and trash piling up, agreed things look much better.
“I am so utterly excited and pleased to see what it being done,” Brown said in an email to the Kent Reporter. “Areas that were so devastated by lazy Kent citizens dumping of unwanted furniture and appliances and vastly trashed areas by long term homeless encampments are finally being cleaned. Those areas are being returned to the natural forest state that they once were before this disaster befell them. I foresee that future where people will be hiking the trails there again.”
It’s an expensive cleanup, however, and a lengthy one. The costs could total as much as $800,000 and the cleanup contract goes to August 2022.
That’s one reason Levenhagen spoke to the council. He requested approval for an amendment to the initial contract with Clean Harbors to spend up to a maximum of another $545,000 to continue the canyon cleanup.
“We can spend up to $545,000,” Levenhagen said. “I hope we do not have to spend that much money, but we will take it area by area.”
The city’s initial contract of $80,000 didn’t go very far when work started in September, so that contract was amended with an additional $175,000 up to $255,000. Levenhagen said it cost about $100,000 to clean up the first area mapped out by city staff, $80,000 for the second area and the third area now underway will exceed the rest of the $255,000 contract.
The council agreed to approve the $545,000 amendment for additional cleanup. That contract states the work should be completed by Aug. 31, 2022, nearly two years away. Mayor Dana Ralph included $1.5 million in her 2021-2022 city budget for the cleanup of Mill Creek Canyon as well as trail restoration and improved access. But so far, cleanup is eating up a big portion of the budget.
The steep slopes of the canyon make it difficult to clean, Levenhagen said. Clean Harbors has had to use cables and pulleys to remove some of the trash and shopping carts.
“It was not clear the best way to do it,” Levenhagen said. “It’s challenging terrain. Most of the slopes are over 40%, which is pretty much straight up and down.”
Brown said city leaders waited too long to do something which drove up the costs.
“The cost is horrendous, but it is that high cost is because responsible leadership sat on their butts for years and years and ignored the problem,” Brown said. “We need an organized response to the homeless problem to reduce them taking over our parks. I have long advocated giving homeless people a place to camp that is cared for to keep them out of our parks, which could be cheaper in the long run.”
Clean Harbors has a Kent location but is based in Massachusetts. The company was founded in 1980 and operates throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico, according to its website. Clean Harbors was the only company to submit a proposal to the city.
As part of its proposal, the company reported that it has current contracts to cleanup homeless encampments with the city of Los Angeles, Orange County in California, San Diego County and the city of San Diego.
Parks Department staff works with the Kent Police Department and the city’s Human Services Department to contact the homeless to remove them from the camps prior to the cleanup.
“We got the majority of them into services,’ Levenhagen said. “We are continuing that when necessary and offering services to help anyone that has an encampment there.”
Councilmember Marli Larimer asked Levenhagen if any homeless are returning to the areas of the park that have been cleaned up.
“I am not aware that any have moved back to area one,” Levenhagen said. “We have staff out there and they will follow procedures if encampments are back.”
Brown said seven homeless encampments returned to area one after it was cleaned up.
“Clean Harbors Environmental Services with the aid of Kent Police removed two of them while they were cleaning that area and two more arose since they left that area to clean area two,” Brown said.
Councilmember Les Thomas said he drives past the canyon and has noticed the difference. He said he saw crews filling up dumpsters with trash.
“But what do we need to do after it’s all cleaned up?” Thomas said. “We don’t want it to return to what we had.”
Levenhagen said parks staff will help make sure the canyon stays clean.
“Keeping it clean is one step,” Levenhagen said. “But we also need to activate the canyon by getting people back out there to enjoy it, connect with nature or walk their dog.”
He said the city plans to reinvest in the park with loop trails, off-leash dog areas, and other things pretty simple that will get used.
“But we will do a public process before we do that, once the cleanup phase is complete,” he said.
Levenhagen emphasized the importance to keep the park clean of homeless encampments as proven by the cost to clean them up.
“It is a significant cost to not maintain,” Levenhagen said. “We plan to hire seasonal staff to pick up liter and garbage found and keep a closer eye on it. We are not entirely sure of best way to approach this but we will try a regular presence out there and go from there.”
Levenhagen said it’s certainly a park the can benefit city residents when cleaned up.
“It is an amazing asset to have with the canyon and a creek running through it,” he said. “It’s an extremely important recreational amenity. It’s a important asset to recreation for everyone.”
Brown, however, while pleased to see the improvements, doubts whether the canyon will stay clean unless other changes are made.
“Right now the Kent Police and Kent Parks Department both wait for citizens to report a problem and then take so long to respond,” Brown said. “We need them both to become proactive in responding to the homeless encampments. …We need aggressive response to homeless encampments instead of the current casual response. …If we continue to do what we have been doing the last decade, we will be back to spending another $500,000 to clean it all over again.”