SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. — More than 10,000 needles will be removed from a vacant 15-acre homeless encampment in Everett, kicking off a three-to-four-week volunteer-led cleanup effort.
Lush greenery graces the roadside of Meridian Ave S in Everett, but step beyond the trees, you’ll find a maze of human-made pathways leading to now-vacant homeless encampments.
For years, it is estimated that anywhere between 30 and 50 campers called the 15-acre space, which stretches from Puget Park to 130th Street, home.
Now, the campers are gone, but the remnants of the camps remain. The area is filled with garbage and needles.
Sharps pepper the ground and even hang from the trees.
“Watch your step, do you need a hand?” asked Jim Phelps, as he led a KIRO-7 team through the various encampments.
Phelps is the vice president of the Hand Up Project, a Snohomish County nonprofit homeless advocacy group and resource facilitator.
Sunday, his team of 50 volunteers worked their way through the area, one pathway and encampment at a time, using trash pickers to sift through the garbage on the ground and carefully pick up and dispose of the needles.
In just over an hour, the group recovered hundreds of needles. But, by the time the day is done, they expect that number to be over 10,000.
“They’re human beings, and they’re so far removed from help and feeling hopeless, that it’s heartbreaking to look at how people are really living, they’re that disconnected from society, that all the doors are closed, and nothing can help, that’s what it really looks like and feels like out here,” Phelps said.
The needle cleanup, known as the 10,000 Needle Initiative, marks the start of a minimum three-week cleanup project. The nonprofit’s efforts began two weeks earlier when they first came to the camps to do outreach.
“We typically come in two weeks prior to the project with a group of volunteers, they really are advocates that want to stand with people and provide resources, to get the folks within the encampments the resources they need whether that’s detox, treatment, housing… We really try to provide a gap in services where we stand beside people and don’t just hand them a business card,” Phelps explained.
“Our goal is for the community to truly see these people as human beings and that the problem isn’t going to be fixed from the top,” Phelps continued. “For people to feel seen and recognized as a human being, you have to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with them and walk beside them on this path to recovery.”
While anyone can volunteer, for many the cause is personal, having faced their own struggles with drug addiction, crime and homelessness.
“I was actually on the bad side of this, I used to sell drugs,” said Jeffery Barquet.
Barquet said he turned his life around after a stint in prison in the early 2000s. Since his release, he has dedicated his time to The Hand Up Project, aiding in various cleanup efforts.
“I tore up families and helped create this and I want to give back and clean it up,” Barquet said. “I feel like it’s me getting right with God, getting right with everyone I harmed in life.”
After a day of needle mitigation, the group will move on to an overall cleanup, removing garbage, structures and other debris.
The cleanup will take an estimated three weeks.
The Hand Up Project is currently in need of volunteers. Click HERE to learn more.
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