The evolution of Santa Cruz’s DIY cleanup crew
It takes the group less than 10 minutes to find around a dozen syringes stashed in an unmarked paper sack. The bag appears innocuous, lying in grass just three feet from a high-traffic thoroughfare, Delaware Avenue, near the park at Natural Bridges State Beach.
So begins a typical Saturday for Santa Cruz's DIY waste-collection effort, The Clean Team.
Since forming last November, the group has gathered on a regular basis to locate, haul away or report discarded materials that may be harmful to people or the environment. In their short time together, they claim to have collected more than 22,000 pounds of trash and reported more than 600 syringe needles from various locations in the city.
"Every place we clean is complicated," says Chris Brown, explaining that cleanups on public land require communication with various public agencies. Although the group stays off of it, she says the team will report hazardous material they spot on private land to authorities.
Brown is a prominent member of the group and helps organize weekly cleanups at various locations, typically near parks and walking trails. Past cleanup sites have included Cowell Beach, The Friendship Garden in Harvey West, Pogonip, the railroad bridge famously featured in the movie The Lost Boys, the area behind the Tannery Arts Center, and along the San Lorenzo River.
During the recent cleanup at Natural Bridges, around 16 volunteers navigate overgrown bushes, blackberry patches and poison oak for three hours, picking up needles, bike parts, discarded mail, urine containers, and various other neglected items. The group does not haul away items from active homeless campsites—which they say they come across three to five times per cleaning event.
The team is wearing black bands around their arms and grabber sticks in honor of the two Santa Cruz Police Department officers recently killed in the line of duty. Although the group does not coordinate with police, there is a policy to report used needles to law enforcement for documentation and proper disposal, and to report any immediate threat to public safety or volunteers during cleanups.
"This is a special day, because the [police department] has always had our back," Brown says. "We're pissing off a lot of people—the Mexican Mob, drug dealers and the pro-homeless."
Brown mixes dexterity and determination to confront whatever she finds down twisted, wooded pathways. When not in the field, she navigates social media to help recruit and communicate with volunteers.
Social media has, in part, been responsible for the group’s rapid, meteoric rise in the local community. Most of its coordination and outreach is done via its Facebook page, The Clean Team!!, which recently surpassed 1,100 members and is abuzz with member activity.
The group also has a domain name (cleanteamsantacruz.org), but the website is not active. "We're hoping that we don't have to be in business much longer," Brown explains.
Taking a page from the book of large local community action group Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), The Clean Team created its Facebook page for a practical purpose—so that community members could take pictures of needles and hazardous waste sites and post them with a GPS marker to help organize cleanup efforts.
The virtual portal is also used to post pictures of items found during cleanups. There are dozens of sobering examples, including a video posted on Saturday, March 16 by member and well-known surfer Ken “SkinDog” Collins that shows what he describes as "57 needles, six tons of trash and a field of poop." It also shows piles of soiled clothing, various garbage items and a James Brown Halloween mask.
It was a similar social media item that prompted the conception of The Clean Team last fall. The group’s first cleanup was held in response to the now infamous video posted to YouTube by surfer Dylan Greiner, in which he documents a drug den at Cowell Beach.
"A surfer was tired of reporting it to the city, so he made a video and posted it online and it went viral," says Collins.
Clean Team volunteers hauled the trash collected at that first cleanup to a Nov. 27 Santa Cruz City Council meeting, where they flooded council chambers to present their findings. According to Collins, who was part of the march to City Hall, civic leaders have since responded by mostly "passing the buck" as to whether the various properties the team cleans are owned by the city, county, state or private.
Collins voiced his concerns to the city council again on Tuesday, March 12, when he rattled a plastic bottle containing found syringes during the lengthy public comment period, during which many others expressed similar concerns.
A March 12 public safety update from the city recapped its own recent efforts to address these issues. The actions listed include approval of $50,000 to aid cleanup efforts through June; development of a web app that would simplify reporting illegal campsites, trash disposal and needles; pursuing plans to fill in the Cowell Beach Cave; and evaluation of ideas like adding a temporary bathroom near the San Lorenzo River Levee and offering a hiring bonus for new police officers. The update also pointed out that city staff and volunteers—including those from The Clean Team and Save Our Shores—collected eight tons of refuse between Feb. 11 and March 11.
Collins, however, says he prefers to take immediate action himself rather than wait for official solutions to be implemented.
"If I'm going to get a ticket for cleaning up toxic waste that could possibly hurt somebody or end up in the ocean, I'll take it," he says. "It's not just trash, it's a public health problem. We just go clean up and ask questions later."
To date, Brown says no Clean Team member has ever been issued any type of trespassing-related citation during cleaning events.
Their deeds are productive, but The Clean Team has not gotten by without criticism, namely from those who feel its zealous mission may be inciting or fueling a war against the homeless, who are a valid and vulnerable population of this city.
"Some members of The Clean Team are demonizing the homeless and calling for an end to homeless services," says Robert Norse, a co-founder of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF). "They are pressing to destroy the camps."
Norse says he is concerned that bureaucrats and groups like TBSC and The Clean Team are trying to eliminate the homeless from the area. He points to the Santa Cruz law that outlaws sleeping outside, day or night, that results in no legal places for homeless people to camp.
"All camps are already illegal camps in this city," he says.
Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson, who participates in some Clean Team cleanups, says the group is a useful way to have eyes and ears on the community and promote a standard for a safe environment that all citizens can recreate in. She says that the group targets only sites with obvious unkempt or unsafe environments.
"This is not a lack of compassion, it's a lack of accountability for creating and leaving hazmat behind," she says while picking up trash around Antonelli Pond during the recent Natural Bridges cleanup. "This is not anti-homeless. These encampments have not been kept clean.”
Politics aside, the underlying desire of all locals seems to be to keep Santa Cruz safe and clean. This includes Reed Duffus, a manager at Coast Paper & Supply Inc. who recently donated a box of grabber sticks, several pairs of work gloves and garbage bags to The Clean Team. He says he is not often able to participate in the cleaning events because of his family and work schedule, but still wants to help.
"I felt I needed to do something. I was raised in this community," he says. "It's nice to see a group of citizens get together and say 'we've had enough.'"
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