Snohomish County agencies spent Thursday and part of Friday last week engaged in a massive cleanup effort of the area known as Steelhead County Park, which is located just south of Sultan along the Skykomish River.
Widely used by homeless and transient individuals as an illegal camping area, the total weight of the garbage removed from the wooded, riverside piece of property topped out at over 12 tons; roughly equivalent to that of a 38-foot, 84-passenger school bus.
The cleanup was the result of a collaborate effort between several Snohomish County agencies including the Parks Department, Public Works, Solid Waste and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department. Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick and Sultan City Administrator Ken Walker also helped facilitate the effort with other members of the Sultan community who have recently formed a task force to take a stand against petty crime and other negative impacts of the transient population.
Finding a way to remove all the filth and debris from the county-owned property was at the top of the agenda for the task force. The burden seemed overwhelming as several recent tours of the area showed both city officials and members of the community just how much garbage had been left behind as occupants were gradually evicted by law enforcement.
“I can’t believe how much stuff has been carried out here and just discarded,” said Sultan Police Chief Monte Beaton.
All but one of the campsites were literally overflowing with rotting garbage including empty food wrappers, alcohol bottles, beer cans, cooking utensils, bicycle parts, propane tanks, cans of spray paint, lighters, batteries and much more. Clothing had been left behind in moldering heaps along with shoes, tarps, suitcases, sleeping bags and blankets.
County officials came to perform a site evaluation on Monday, July 14.
“They looked at it and said, ‘We’ll be out here on Thursday and Friday with two pieces of equipment, a dump truck and five employees to start cleaning this up,’” said Beaton.
Crews showed up Thursday morning with an excavator, a backhoe and a dump truck. Once the majority of the debris was scooped up using the heavy equipment, county employees clothed in protective jumpsuits came through with hand-held devices to collect smaller bits of trash and refuse. Each campsite was tackled in this manner.
By 11:30 a.m. they had already hauled out 17 cubic yards of material; all of which was essentially from one camp.
Chief Beaton patrolled the area with one of his deputies on Thursday morning to ensure that all the major campsites had been located and targeted for cleanup. They were also onsite just in case anything of value was located, a fairly unlikely prospect.
“This stuff is filthy,” said Beaton, indicating some of the trash that hadn’t been picked up yet. “Everything out here is moldy, rotten and falling apart.”
The concept for Steelhead Park has been in the planning stages for several years. The county owned a total of 52 acres in the area, and then last August, Snohomish County Parks was awarded a land conservation grant to acquire an adjoining 24-acre parcel. It was on this 24-acre piece that the homeless camps became established.
The property includes 2300 lineal feet of Skykomish River shoreline, which was a major environmental concern; even a mild flooding event could have caused yards of toxic materials to be swept away in the water.
Chief Beaton stated that the fact that the property is county-owned is very fortunate.
“It’s lucky because that means we can clean it up,” said Beaton. “It’s a beautiful piece of property.”
Crews continued to clean the area until around 1:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
With all the major encampments in Steelhead Park cleaned up, the Sultan Community Task Force has set a goal to patrol the area twice a month and eliminate all new indications of illegal camping. Volunteers will also come through and pick up the small bits and pieces left behind by the county’s work crew.
“The county has done all the heavy lifting,” said Beaton.
The task force has a community-wide, two-day cleanup event scheduled for July 29 and 30. In addition to Steelhead Park, volunteers will be traveling through Osprey Park, Reese Park and other areas of the city picking up all garbage and evidence of illegal camping. The current plan is to meet at Sultan City Hall at 10 a.m., and to develop a strategy from there.
Last week Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick appointed Volunteers of America East County Navigator Calei Vaughn to chair the task force. Vaughn has extensive history working with chronically homeless individuals in the area. Her goal is to seek permanent supportive housing programs for these individuals whenever possible.
She was recently able to secure two long-term supportive housing slots through two different agencies for individuals squatting near one of the local churches.
“To get two slots in one day is huge,” said Vaughn. “I don’t get two slots a year sometimes.”
The city has also recently established a course of action to help shine the spotlight on several residences in city limits suspected of illegal drug activity. Within the next couple weeks city officials will be sending a letter to property owners to advise them of the risks associated with this kind of activity occurring on their property.
“Right now we’ve identified about five homes that we’re sending that to,” said City Administrator Ken Walker. “We’re having our attorneys craft the letter so it is legally correct. We are not accusing them of doing anything; we are simply stating that the community has indicated that there could be a problem on their property.”
The Sultan Community Task Force meets every Wednesday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. at Sultan City Hall. The August cleanup dates have been tentatively established as August 12 and 27. Walker said that, if there is enough public interest, he will arrange a Saturday cleanup event.
Both the Sultan Community Task Force and the recently revitalized Block Watch program are the result of the community coming together to take a stand against burglary, car prowls, petty theft and vandalism in the area. Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick stated that she is impressed with the momentum that the community has managed to achieve thus far.
“It is amazing what can happen when voices and communities come together,” said Eslick. “This is a great example of everyone working toward the same goals.”
For more information about the Community Task Force, contact Ken Walker at 360-793-2231. For more information about Block Watch, visit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SultanBlockWatch/