The unhoused and their trash

Keywords: homeless, stress, mental health, housing first

A recent letter to the editor of the Eugene Register-Guard asked what I assume is a common question about the unhoused. Why, when they establish camps. do they allow trash to accumulate around them; why do they seem to “choose” to live in their trash? If you live in an area with a large unhoused population, such as Eugene, you’ve probably seen examples. BdiJ lived on the streets for seven years and has some insight into this. I helped her provide a response based on things she’s told me that was published in the RG on Feb 7, 2021. With a 200 word limit, it is very concise so I will present it and then discuss the issue more. Published as Housing first, trash will take care of itself:

“Marlene Pearson doesn’t understand why some unhoused “choose” to live amongst their trash (Letters, Jan 30). First, please remember that not every unhoused person disregards their trash. It only takes a few to trash a large area.

To live on the street can be to live in a constant state of trauma. Imagine living in a state of fight, flight, or freeze 24/7. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or where you’re going to sleep at night, can make it difficult to think about other issues. This extreme stress can, in essence, create a cognitive overload in the decision making parts of the brain. When living with this level of stress, trash may not have high enough priority to even think about, let alone make a choice about. Concern can be constantly about the next five minutes, not tomorrow.

This is part of why “housing first” is so important – even if it’s just a pallet house. Having a door that can be shut and locked can provide a biochemical calming of the brain that can allow for thinking about longer term issues – like what to do with the trash.”

(End of letter as submitted.)

If there is one idea to focus on it is that of living in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. Realistically, not every unhoused person is experiencing this and even individuals who do probably have moments of rest. But this state can easily become a foundation when you don’t know if you’re going to be told to move on or harassed by someone – potentially the police – at any moment. When you carry everything you consider valuable with you wherever you go, there can be a constant fear of losing something important. These are just some of the factors that can cause mental health issues among the unhoused whether or not they had any issues prior to losing their housing.

This is a level of stress I can only understand intellectually and not with a true visceral feeling. The closest I can come is due to helping out at the Egan Warming Center. (For those that don’t know, Egan is an awesome organization that provides a warm place to sleep in Eugene and Springfield, OR when the temperature drops below 30 degrees.) Because of Covid, this past season has required completely different logistics. BdiJ has been the transportation lead making sure people get to where they need to go. This year, that turned into her driving a shuttle around town (with me accompanying her for safety) picking people up and bringing them to the shelter. One of the people we picked up was camped in what many people would consider the type of trash pile under discussion. This person wanted to bring it all with them – it wasn’t trash to them! Unfortunately, there are limits to how much we can transport and this person had a difficult time deciding what to bring. What a conundrum to face: a warm place to sleep but at the risk of losing most of your belongings.

Another insight from BdiJ is using a trash pile to hide your valuables. People aren’t likely to look through a bunch of junk to see if you have something worth taking. The down side of this can be finding your valuables yourself.

Stepping back some, consider that living in your trash is not limited to the unhoused. And I’m not just talking about hoarders. Everyone has a different level of dirt tolerance. (This is a common point of conflict between roommates.) I once had a friend-of-a-friend who didn’t see the need to pick up their puppy’s poop on the living room floor during house training. (I only went to their house once.) It is only in the cases where hoarding pours into the yard or there is public notice of health concerns that an issue is made – and not always even then. So ask yourself and society, why do we treat the unhoused differently in this situation?

Finally, please remember that housing is only the first step. Helping people to get off the streets often requires continued support. Providing – and financing – case workers is a critical second step.

(The cover photo was found online and was attributed to king5.com.)

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