Keeping Huntsville’s homeless camps, waterways clean

single-meta-cal December 16, 2020

Who do you call when you need help cleaning a homeless camp?

For the City of Huntsville’s Operation Green Team and Police Department, Model Environment is the first agency that comes to mind.

“When you’re talking about cleaning up in and around a homeless camp, not every volunteer wants to do that,” said Green Team Director Joy McKee. “It takes a special volunteer to come in and help us with that project.”

That’s why McKee and HPD Lt. Grady Thigpen are especially grateful for Model Environment’s service to the City and commitment to keeping our waterways clean.

McKee said Model Environment, a Huntsville-based team of “eco-activists” working to clean litter and reduce pollution in our waterways, not only improves quality of life for homeless residents, but ensures the environment is healthy in the long-term.

“We’re trying to help make sure our community is clean, especially our water,” McKee said. “The work (Model Environment) is doing makes a difference.”

The Back Story

Years before Model Environment debuted in Huntsville, founder Christy Beck was working in Los Angeles as a booker for a modeling agency.

“A lot of the models I represented were looking for things to do to give back and be productive in society,” she said.

Beck, inspired by her time in the industry, founded the company in 2011 to contribute to a safer, cleaner, healthier planet. As a platform for the models, Model Environment gained buzz around the world, serving as an example of how simple actions and easy initiatives can make a big impact on environmental and climate issues.

Beck moved to Huntsville – her hometown – five years ago and brought Model Environment with her. In Huntsville, the modeling aspect of the business naturally evolved to reach a broader scope, involving new markets and new initiatives. Beck believes that wherever you are in the world, and whatever your community needs are, we can all make an impact and be “Models for Earth” (ME).

So, Beck, an account manager at Spur Staffing and Green Team’s 2017 Volunteer of the Year, worked with Spur to employ “Earth Advocates” and “Camp Cleaners” of every kind in Huntsville.

The rest is history.

Camp Cleanups

Since early 2020, the City has worked closely with Model Environment to help clean Huntsville’s homeless camps and offer employment to those who are chronically homeless.

Model Environment provides $15 per hour to Earth Advocates and $11 per hour to Camp Cleaners. So far, Model Environment, in collaboration with Spur Staffing, has employed three homeless individuals to help keep the camps clean while allowing them to earn a living wage to ultimately move out of homelessness and into sustainable, independent living.

Seeing the Camp Cleaners often inspires other residents to voluntarily grab a trash bag and help out, Beck said.

“Hopefully, it’s making the people there think more about the space and how to keep it clean,” she said.

Unfortunately, much of the trash Model Environment removes comes directly from donations people drop off at the camps.

Examples include uncut tree trunks, cooked and uncooked food (including meat and other perishable goods), clothing, shoes and more.

“People think they’re doing good, but it becomes a problem with rat infestation,” Beck said. “And if folks are removed from the camps or they move somewhere, they don’t pack up all their things and carry it with them. They leave whatever they have accumulated and it becomes someone else’s problem.”

Beck said some residents burn donated clothing, mattresses and other items made from synthetic materials, which pollutes the environment and is a health hazard for those living there.

Always thinking of how to remedy environmental issues while encouraging the generosity of the community, Beck has been working with the City to create long-term solutions.

How to Have a Greater Impact

The City and Model Environment strongly encourage the Huntsville community to contact the agencies that work with the homeless to donate food, supplies, clothing or money.

“Ask what’s needed before you drop off,” Beck said. “If you’re not going to go through an advocacy group, just make sure the item is needed before it’s dropped off.

“Report illegal dumping … because there are absolutely people using these camps for that purpose. And please, definitely, don’t drop off uncooked food.”

McKee agrees.

When agencies don’t communicate with each other about their plans, their well-meaning efforts often mean hundreds of pounds of food and other items are thrown away.

“There’s a lot of people who want to feed and clothe them and keep them warm,” McKee said. “But they don’t think of the back-end things that happen.”

Green Team Foundation

The Operation Green Team Foundation is actively working to bring new amenities – like compostable toilets and dumpsters – to the camps in 2021 and beyond.

McKee encourages anyone, especially churches, corporations and other large agencies, to call 53-CLEAN if they would like to contribute time, money or other resources to these initiatives.

“If we could have companies sit down at the table with the Operation Green Team Foundation and fill in some of the gaps with HPD and our homeless advocacy groups, we can all get together and say here’s our list of needs,” she said. “It all goes back to having good coordination.”

For more information about the Operation Green Team Foundation, click here.