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  • Writer's pictureKimmer Collison-Ris, MSN, FNP-BC, MS CAM

The Environmental Impact of Homeless Encampments

Updated: Mar 7



Environmental health promotion plays a key role in my life and my personal space. I’ve chosen to live in an established residential area surrounded by towering evergreen trees, numerous plants, and wildlife. The greenery surrounds individual homes and provides a calm forest-like setting that inspires walks and time out in the yard for reflection. I can walk less than a mile to view the Puget Sound from the cliff. Many of us enjoy yard spaces that contain home gardens and sitting areas that allow for rest and conversation; surrounded by bird calls and animal chatter.

 

Within my light-filled home, I try to keep visual clutter down and we regularly recycle household items and clothes as well as purchase gently used clothing and home items from local thrift shops. We regularly open our windows for air circulation and utilize water filtration systems which are then run through an ozone machine for removal of harmful chemicals.  We are mindful of using naturally made cleaning agents and limit the use of chemical laden products. I tend to use glass jars for storage of food items and have been trying to reduce the use of plastic containers.  Our home has several calm spaces devoid of electronics and the back of the house is flanked by French doors that lets the southern sun flood the home throughout the year.


However outside of my neighborhood, but within my community, there is a growing suburban homeless population that has taken residence in side-streets behind strip malls and parks. Trash is accumulating and the local businesses now close early and the coffee shops have closed their sitting areas due to the large numbers of transient individuals. Where people once met with friends and family over coffee and at parks, these spaces have become less available and more stressful. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the growing issues related to homelessness: lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment, and wealth inequality (Olson & Pauly, 2021).

 

The homeless communities that continue to expand within cities, towns, neighborhoods, and along interstates and highways, are overflowing with debris and toxic waste that is harmful to both the individual inhabitants and the community. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2020) reports > 12 million people around the world die every year because they live or work in unhealthy environments. These environments are known to cause health problems (respiratory diseases, heart disease, and some cancers).  Improper garbage removal creates serious threats to human health and the environment (Sirisha, 2023). Individuals caught in low-income brackets experience more polluted areas and unsafe drinking water. Children and pregnant women experience higher risk for health problems related to pollution (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).

 

Currently the local municipalities are fighting a losing battle as attempts to clean up and address the causes of homelessness lack appropriate resources. Inconsistent waste disposal leads to irreversible ecosystem damage through environmental contamination resulting in water contamination, vector-borne diseases, and food safety risks. Poor waste management attracts disease-carrying pests (rats, cockroaches, fleas). Inadequate waste management also leads to food contamination, respiratory problems, and infection spread (Sirisha, 2023). Creating a further challenge is these encampments also contain human waste, making worker cleanups at risk for health issues (Gutberlet & Uddin, 2017). Hazardous waste and unsafe waste disposal (like open burning) directly place inhabitants and workers in contact for health risks along with the neighboring community. Improper waste collection causes environmental and marine pollution, often blocking water drains, leading to flooding and standing waste waters (The World Health organization, 2023).

 

The World Health organization (2022) identifies clean air, adequate water, sanitation, hygiene, safe use of chemicals, protection from radiation, healthy and safe workplaces, sound agricultural practices, stable climate, and a preserved nature as prerequisites for good health. In our current situation, much needs to be done to address the physical pollution and hopelessness that has taken over our communities. Our local parks and wildlife habitats are being destroyed by garbage and human waste. These individuals all suffer from mental health issues that aren't easily addressed and that are increased by living in these unsafe conditions.

 

In my county, humanitarian groups are trying to work with local governments to help connect with homeless individuals to address social and physical needs. They often assist with trash and solid waste removal. Solid waste workers occasionally pick up large items left behind on the road or abandoned camps. Still, we haven’t found a way as a community to actively contribute to improving our environmental health and surroundings. The environment the homeless encampments pose are a threat to human health, theirs and ours. Although my county maintains they have committed to finding solutions to these issues our homeless populations continues to grow with little relief in site .

 

References

Gutberlet, J., & Uddin, S. M. N. (2017). Household waste and health risks affecting waste pickers and the environment in low- and middle-income countries. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 23(4), 299–310. https://doi.org/10.1080/10773525.2018.1484996

 

Olson, N., & Pauly, B. (2021). Homeless encampments: connecting public health and human rights. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 112(6). https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-021-00581-w

 

Sirisha. (2023, August 11). Dangers of Improper Garbage Disposal: Health Effects and Environmental Contamination. Scale Climate Action. https://scaleclimateaction.org/environment/dangers-of-improper-garbage-disposal-health-effects-and-environmental-contamination/

 

Snohomish county wa.gov (2020). Homeless Prevention & Response System Strategic Plan [Review of Homeless Prevention & Response System Strategic Plan]. Snohomish County Washington.gov. https://snohomishcountywa.gov/1080/Homeless-PreventionResponse-System-Strat

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Environmental health - healthy people 2030 | health.gov. Health.gov. https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/browse-objectives/environmental-health

 

World Health Organization. (2023). Guidance on solid waste and health. Www.who.int. https://www.who.int/tools/compendium-on-health-and-environment/solid-waste 

 

World Health Organization. (2022). Environmental health. Www.who.int. https://www.who.int/health-topics/environmental-health#tab=tab_1

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