By Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper

My love for the Russian River has taken me places I never thought I’d go, like homeless camps.

An estimated 1,148 people live in homeless camps along the Russian River — which flows south through Mendocino and Sonoma Counties in northern California — and along its tributaries. We realized that we couldn’t keep our river clean without help from the people scrapping for shelter along its banks.

The first thing we at Russian Riverkeeper focus on when we speak with people at homeless encampments is something most outdoorsy people learned as children: leave-no-trace practices. Most people in homeless camps have never camped before; leave-no-trace is new to them.

We encourage people in larger camps to consolidate from many kitchen areas to one big kitchen, which consolidates trash, making our pickups easier. We now serve 121 homeless camps with weekly garbage pickups.

Under a 2018 grant from Sonoma County, 21 homeless people worked for us to pick up trash in downtown Guerneville. While we no longer have funding for that program, we can still enlist some people we know and hand them bags and gloves to fill our trailer. Then we take them to lunch. Counting homeless people and employees, we now have volunteers and staff cleaning up the river seven days a week.

One couple who’ve been monitoring trash on the coastal beaches for over 25 years told us they can’t fill a bag anymore at Salmon Creek Beach.

We’re changing behavior. And, doing that, we’ve changed the river.

Story first appeared in Waterkeeper Alliance Vol. 16 (Summer 2020).