Climbing underneath a bridge in Concord is an otherworldly experience. For a start, I'm used to regarding bridges as something to cross over, not to climb under. It requires negotiating tall weeds, rocky terrain and perhaps crawling through a wire fence or slipping down an unexpected ditch. My experience also included the impediment of pitch darkness since I had forgottent to bring a flashlight.
Instead, I had to rely on the sure footedness of Doug Stewart, the man at the helm of Central County Homeless Outreach. He knew where he was going, since he frequents these same spots as part of his nightly shift to bring supplies and offer resources to Concord's homeless.
He drives me to the Willow Pass Shopping Center and we head for the bridge. At first, he asks me to stay back while he checks out the place — this can be one of the more aggressive areas, he says, where meth users have been congregating. He disappears into the darkness and all I can hear is the sound of his boots occasionally crunching something underfoot. I look up at the beaming Hilton sign, casting a pink glow over the night. Then he calls out and says it's okay to come down.
What I see when I get through the pitch black night to his flashlight is shocking. The ground is barely visible through the trash, which stretches across a vast expanse along the bank and down into the empty creek under the bridge. And this is just one in a row of bridge sections, each with its own ambiance of littered chaos.
Empty cereal boxes, mattresses, cigarette packets, CDs, food cans, toothpaste tubes, pants, shoes, lotion bottles, feminine care products, pornography magazines — there are even a few artistic pen sketches on yellow paper, detailing a bearded man's face. In the next section we find a fan and a microwave, and Stewart explains that they must have had a generator down here at one point.
As I walk over to inspect a cart stuffed full of even more trash, Stewart calls out a warning: "Be careful," he says. "You're about to stand in the toilet." I look down. Next to my feet is a round hole in the ground full of human waste.
"Would you want to sleep here?" asks Stewart.
"Not only do I not want to sleep here, I don't even want to be here right now," I reply.
We have to be careful wading through the trash and faeces — it's no doubt chock-full of bacteria. Stewart tells me to do what he does every night as soon as he gets home: take off your shoes outside the door and put your clothes in the dryer on a hot setting to burn away the germs.
Walking voluntarily through this mess is one thing, but the other problem is that this trash is in the direct path of the creek. When the rain comes and fills the channel, then all this waste will become mobile as it runs a course toward the ocean or becomes part of the water supply.
The city contracts with a company called Junk Pros in San Ramon for homeless camp cleanup, and they're supposed to be dealing with the Willow Pass bridge this week, according to Officer Summer Galer of the Concord Police Department.
Junk Pro's is a certified eco-friendly collector, according to Galer, and "recycles and donates as much of what they collect as possible." The city pays Junk Pros $50 per unit, which is equal to two cubic yards of trash.
It is unclear how much it will cost the city to clean up the Willow Pass bridge, but when I checked down there Tuesday afternoon, there was a pile of trash floating on a pool of water and new bedding areas had been erected in the nook of the overpass.
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