‘This is unbelievable’: One day is not nearly enough to clean up garbage at campsites along river, volunteers find
photo by: Elvyn Jones
As he walked Saturday along Lawrence’s river levee trail, explaining what he hoped a cleanup effort would accomplish, Alex Hormell spotted what he said was another homeless camp abandoned last fall with the onset of cold weather.
Hormell, who organized the volunteer cleanup, had spotted tarps barely visible in the tree line beyond the steep slope south of the levee. The tarps, draped over or tied to branches, provided campers with shelter against last summer’s sun and rain.
“You would never see them in a few weeks when the foliage starts to pop,” Hormell said of the tarps.
A North Lawrence resident for more than six years, Hormell organized Saturday’s cleanup of the abandoned campsites on the north bank of the river east of the Kansas River bridge. By about 11 a.m., around 30 volunteers had cleaned up one camp near the Eighth Street access point and another south of the point where North Fifth Street terminates at the levee.
Following a mountain bike trail into the timber, Hormell discovered what appeared to be a family camp. A circle of rubbish about 20 feet in diameter included tooth brushes, empty boxes, soaked blankets, a mattress and a high chair.
Hormell started filling a wheelbarrow with trash from the family campsite before deciding to explore another camp about 20 feet down the trail. It proved to be a campsite twice as large strewn with garbage ranging from empty cans to a wicker desk. From that site, an even larger littered site was visible about 20 feet beyond. One more site hidden behind an elaborate crafted patio with an archway constructed of vines and limbs completed the cluster of four campsites.
As Hormell surveyed the largest of the camps, he confessed he was surprised by how large the complex was.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I honestly didn’t expect anything like this.”
The find had Hormell reassessing his approach to the cleanup. The plan was for the volunteers to fill a city-provided dumpster by clearing the riverbank campsites from the Eighth Street access point to the Kansas River bridge. With the discovery of the new camp cluster and word of another large campsite west of the bridge, Hormell acknowledged that more cleanup days would be needed.
photo by: Contributed photo
About 3 p.m., Hormell said nearly half of the newly discovered cluster was cleaned Saturday and the remaining garbage would be picked up April 3 if enough people volunteered. He said he would also reach out to the homeless community to help with the effort and ask if the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department could make a small four-wheel-drive vehicle available for the next cleanup day.
“That would help immensely,” he said. “We could get this done in half the time if the city would do that.”
In Hormell’s mind, there is no question that the trash in the campsites has to be removed. The piles of garbage detract from the public use of the riverbank, he said, pointing to a mattress abandoned squarely across a mountain bike trail.
Among the debris are small propane bottles that will eventually rust out, creating a potential fire hazard. There may be other environmentally harmful materials in the litter, as well, he said.
Kevin Cottin, of North Lawrence, said he was helping with the cleanup so the neighborhood could showcase the area to the community.
“This is a beautiful natural resource in North Lawrence we love to share with the community,” he said. “We are cleaning it as a service so everyone in Lawrence can enjoy a hike, a bike ride, bird watching or just experience nature in a scenic environment.”
Volunteer Jamie Hofling said she visited the campsites last summer from her North Lawrence home. She said the number of homeless campers was inflated because of economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hofling, Hormell and other volunteers said they hoped the new homeless tent site south of the Kansas River would reduce the number of homeless campers on the north bank, but they expect campers will return this summer. Hofling and other volunteers are planning a protective approach to the campsite litter problem by placing garbage containers near the sites and hauling bags of trash out regularly.
“I don’t want to throw shade on the campers, because they had no place to throw trash,” she said.