With the help of a few volunteers and support from the city, one community member started a biweekly trash cleanup project at Alton Baker Park.
“I’ve said it many times, I’m not a protester or an activist,” project organizer Kathy Walker says. But she has made significant efforts to start a dialogue between the city and its unprotected, unhoused citizens.
In July, Walker was asked to meet with Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, and the two decided to organize and run a “town hall type” meeting in Alton Baker Park on Aug. 1. According to Walker, representatives from the city were invited to meet with the homeless, with the hope of creating conversation between the unhoused and other members in the community.
At the meeting, Walker says, there was a clear piece of common ground: “Both sides were sick of the garbage.” She continues, “One ‘camper’ mentioned how hard it was to dispose of their garbage and how, if only they had the tools, they would even clean up other people’s messes.”
Walker says she tried to get Eugene Public Works to schedule garbage pickups on a regular basis, but the city department explained to her how overloaded they were and said it wouldn’t be possible.
After a man pointed out that scheduled trash pickups would prevent full bags from being torn open and scattered everywhere, Walker decided to take matters into her own hands. And with the support of the mayor and the help of one other housed volunteer, “We did just that,” Walker says.
Walker partnered with Eugene’s Parks and Open Space, which granted her a three-month trial period of support and supplies. Parks and Open Space provides trash bags and park patrols, an authorized vehicle access permit for the trial period and made arrangements for Walker to have easy access to a garbage dumpster.
Walker organized in less than a week and officially began on Sept. 12. She goes with a driver and a few volunteers every other week to empty trash cans and pick up trash bags at Alton Baker Park.
“Illegal camping and the large amounts of trash and waste left behind has a huge impact on the park, including sensitive natural areas and water quality,” Carrie Peterson, Parks and Open Space resource development manager, tells EW. “Park staff struggle to keep up with the extraordinarily high demand, and couldn’t do it alone.”
Walker started a GoFundMe campaign in mid-October to help offset the costs and give a little bit to the volunteers — all of whom are unhoused, according to Walker. “Our trial period ends in December, but I’m hoping we have made enough of an impact to continue indefinitely,” she says.
“Efforts like Kathy’s, ongoing river cleanup projects by Willamette Riverkeeper volunteers and the annual Great Willamette Cleanup are excellent examples of everyday people stepping up to make a big difference,” Peterson says.
Walker says she also arranges unscheduled pickups on the off weeks when she can, and she spreads the word as much as possible. “All I did was put their idea into action,” she says. “This helps us show the public that most of these people want to keep it clean — they just need a little help to make it happen.”