50 tons of trash removed from homeless camps along Jordan River

(Christopher Smart | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jorge Martinez, Salt Lake County Health Department, wades through trash and garbage near a homeless camp along the Jordan River near 3900 South on Friday. This week the Salt Lake County Health Department and various partners removed 50 tons of garbage from along the river's banks.

It’s unsightly, unhealthy, bad for the environment and it stinks.

It’s garbage and human waste strewn along the ecologically sensitive wetlands surrounding the Jordan River in Salt Lake Valley. And it’s mounting by the tons, since the Aug. 14 launch of Operation Rio Grande.

Homeless campers have been cleared out of downtown Salt Lake City by the law enforcement initiative aimed at cleaning up and reducing crime around The Road Home shelter. But that doesn’t mean those people have disappeared altogether.

They have moved to the foothills, the river banks and nooks and crannies around Salt Lake Valley. Their make-shift homes have no plumbing and no garbage pickup.

This week, the Salt Lake County Health Department and various partners picked up 50 tons of refuse along the Jordan River near 3900 South.

The waste creates the kind of environment that breeds hepatitis Type A. It’s also harmful to the sensitive wetlands and the Jordan River itself, said Jorge Martinez, community outreach and cleanup coordinator for Salt Lake County Health Department.

The main focus of Operation Rio Grande has been on the criminal element that preys on the homeless population, Martinez said Friday.

“But the environmental degradation along the Jordan River also is a significant concern,” he said. “When it comes to solid waste and chemical hazards [particularly near the river], the entire community is affected.”

Unlike similar cleanups along 500 West between 200 South and 400 South before Operation Rio Grande, when the county could clean up camps with front-end loaders and dump trucks, the work along the Jordan must be done by hand because it is a wetland and also because the underbrush is so thick, Martinez said.

“It’s extremely time consuming because of the health risks involved from needles and feces,” he explained.

Homeless campers have lived along the Jordan River since anyone can remember. But since the Aug. 14 launch of Operation Rio Grande, their numbers have grown along with their waste, Martinez said.

“The campers who have been there already are complaining they are being invaded by people from Salt Lake City,” he said. “They are claiming the drug users are coming out to the outlying areas and they don’t like it.”

The county health department depends on help from neighboring municipalities and agencies, such as the Utah Department of Corrections, which provided inmate labor for this week’s cleanup.

“This problem is beyond the county’s resources,” Martinez said. “Since Operation Rio Grande, this area has become a lot more impacted.”

It’s another challenge, he said, for a system that is not working for homeless people.