The rains have stopped, so for The Watershed Project that means it’s trash assessment season. Since 2014, The Watershed Project has been conducting “hot spot” trash assessments along several creek sites in Contra Costa County to fulfill the stormwater trash reduction requirements set forth by the Regional Water Quality Control Board. In addition to removing trash along 300 linear feet of the creek channel and along the banks, we collect data on the types of trash found in order to determine the main sources of trash and develop control strategies to achieve the ambitious zero trash goal by 2023. These data show an increase in illegal dumping and clothing and other items likely resulting from people living in and around creeks. In recent years, many people who have lost their homes have taken up residence along creeks, including two sites along Wildcat Creek in North Richmond, where TWP conducts trash assessments each year.
This year we partnered with an organization called SOS, which stands for Safe Organized Spaces Richmond, to help us conduct the trash assessment near the Wildcat Creek Marsh. Daniel Barth founded SOS to help deepen a community of care that supports our unhoused neighbors. Instead of the usual cycle of “abate and displace” homelessness from our neighborhoods, SOS works with the unhoused where they are and strives to build relationships that improve stability, providing employment opportunities that ignite personal change and neighborhood stewardship. SOS recruits and trains unhoused residents to operate its Streets Team mobile sanitation and Shower Power mobile hygiene programs to improve living conditions at existing encampments and develop alternative off-street “safe spaces.” SOS partners with other trusted organizations such as TWP to work on common goals and in cross-sector collaboration for building a collective impact approach for homeless re-housing.
After the trash assessment over lunch, we interviewed two of the participants to get a better understanding of the work they do for SOS, and how it has impacted their lives.
Randy Scott is a life-long Richmond resident. When we asked him why he chose to participate in today’s event, he said, “I work for SOS. It’s my job and I’m part of this community. I come to this spot regularly.” When asked what activities would improve living conditions along the creek and help with creek restoration, he replied, “We need organized spaces away from the creekbeds. I was a creek inhabitant living in a culvert on San Pablo Creek, and I thought I was free but I was living in a sort of prison. I also spent most of 25 years in the state prison system, a jailbird. Because of this job [through SOS] working with others I’m no longer homeless, nor in prisoned.”
The strategies that SOS provide not only benefit encampment residents but also improve conditions in the creek. Street Team member O’Neill Fernandez commented, “I’ve been homeless and lived next to creeks, and have seen the impacts”. After cleaning up the 300 foot stretch of the creek, Randy calculated that we had collected about ½ pound of trash per foot, not as bad as in other creeks. (The average weight of trash per foot collected in 2021 was 1.6 lbs/foot). Randy recently learned that crawdads are native to creeks in this area, and that they belong here. What doesn’t belong here is trash. When asked what activities would best improve living conditions for people living along the creek and help with creek restoration, Oneill said, “Restrooms, but the big thing is more ways of discarding trash–some where to put the trash.”
We ended the interview by asking, “Is there any information you would like to tell the public through this article?” Randy said, “It’s [work with SOS] improved my life because I can help myself. My car’s registered, insured, and legal. It didn’t used to be. I even got a jury summons!” Randy also mentioned that he was glad that the city and county were involved in cleaning up trash in the streets by installing storm drain trash capture devices. Oneill said, “SOS is not only cleaning up trash, but cleaning up our acts. There’s a whole world of opportunities provided by SOS and its structure. In the past few months I went from living in the creek, to an RV camp, to having a roof over my head. I’m sober, about to have my third kid.” Oneill had just moved into his new home with his girlfriend and mother-in-law last week. Three or four other SOS employees have also found permanent housing.
The Watershed Project thanks SOS and the Street Teams for their help in improving conditions in Wildcat Creek and we look forward to future collaborations in restoring local creeks and watersheds.