July 09, 2016
  • Housing Issue

Homes of the Homeless

Homes of the Homeless
By The West View

Any west-sider knows that homeless people are embedded within and scattered throughout our communities. We glimpse them in flashes, determinedly pushing shopping carts, bikes, or bike trailers loaded with their entire belongings up and down our sidewalks and trails, sleeping on park lawns, even digging for aluminum cans in our trash cans.

Many live intermittently in our public homeless "shelters." But many gravitate to, and travel along, river corridors, probably because of the riparian forest that allows them privacy.

On my kayak paddles on the Jordan River, I see improvised dwellings daily. Occasionally, while gliding through one of the river tunnels formed by overhanging tree branches, a new dwelling will appear at my elbow. Yikes! Human eyeballs stare from a cave-like hollow in the willows or phragmites thickets. A brief, awkward exchange of banal greetings – "Hey there!" – and they vanish in my boat wake as suddenly as they appeared.

Sometimes we do have time to chat. One man told me that he lost his livelihood as a house painter after he was badly disabled in a machete attack by an angry driver at the dangerous “S” curve of Big Cottonwood Canyon. As he was recovering from the injury his mother was killed in a fire, which totally destroyed the house in which they had lived. I thought this story sounded suspiciously theatrical, and asked if I could see the scar from this injury. He yanked up his shirt: there it was, an angry ridge of flesh running from his neck across his chest to his rib cage.

Some of the homeless people that I encounter are intellectually or physically disabled. Many are unable to find jobs because of criminal records, some are highly intelligent, competent and skilled, and a large number of them are heroin or methadone addicts.

The handiwork of some of the grander transient homes is impressive. One couple from Texas lived from fall until spring in their insulated “cliff dwelling” under the Fremont Bridge on the bank of the Jordan River.

There has long been a major tent village just downstream from the Fisher Mansion and 200 South. The mansion’s elegant carriage house rooflines tower above bright orange and blue dome tents, shredded tarps, bike frames, shopping carts, and prolifically scattered trash spilling down into the river.Another transient dwelling along the back side of the Glendale Golf Course has been ingeniously camouflaged within a dense thicket of ten-foot high, tasseled yellow phragmites grass, coyote willow branches and prickly Russian olive trees. Over my decade of residence on the West Side, I've heard many complaints – and added some of my own – about the copious quantities of trash laid down by our nomadic human visitors, especially on the banks of the Jordan River.

A friend and I recently spent 12 hours sorting and bagging the contents of a single abandoned transient camp, resembling a small city dump about fifty feet in diameter. We collected 200 articles of damp clothing; 50 shoes; 220 pounds of bike components; three collapsed tents, a tarp and two sleeping bags; five rugs; a very large furniture cushion; a large plastic dog house and 30 pounds of canned food; a car battery; several stage lighting stands; a laptop computer and other e-waste; and 25 pounds of hazardous materials including no less than 100 hypodermic needles, about 30 of them floating loose in the mess.

The impact of our growing population of homeless people is a substantial city management problem.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba has worked out an ingenious solution to its trash problem. The city pays semi-homeless slum-dwellers bus tokens for each bag of trash brought to trash collection stations. The bus passes allow the poor to move easily around the large city and commute to whatever jobs may be available. Perhaps our city could provide something similar to our homeless “urban campers.”