Do the homeless defecate in the woods?
Admittedly, this is not a pleasant question to ponder. Most of the thousands of runners, strollers, bikers and dog walkers who daily pass the homeless camps hidden in the city's greenbelts and parks would probably prefer to avoid even contemplating the issue.
Until a friend started talking about his participation in the Anchorage Creek Cleanup earlier this year, I confess to being easily able to keep the environmental problems caused by the homeless far from my thoughts.
But when someone familiar with environmental hazards expresses a belief that he and other clean-up volunteers should have been wearing biohazard suits, it gets your attention.
Nobody knows how many homeless people there are in Anchorage, let alone how many are living in makeshift camps in the woods. Estimates range from as high as a couple thousand men, women and children to as low as 150 "chronically homeless" adults.
More than 2,000 people would represent a community larger than the city of North Pole near Fairbanks. Even 150 comprise a population greater than that of the villages of Nikolai or Anvik or a half dozen others with names familiar to many Alaskans.
All of these places deal with the safe disposal of human waste in some way, be it with something as old-fashioned as the pit toilet (outhouse) or as modern as a sewage treatment plant.
None of the homeless camps I've stumbled on in the woods along Anchorage's greenbelts or in the Campbell Tract on the Hillside have sewage treatment plants, and as anyone who runs or bikes much in the municipality knows, there aren't a lot of public outhouses for these campers to use.
The city puts out a few port-a-potties along the most popular trails in the summer, but there's nothing there in the winter.
And as anyone familiar with what is commonly called the "runner's trots" can tell you, the facilities that are available in summer are spaced far enough apart that even those who want to be environmentally conscious are sometimes forced to duck into the woods and make like the bear.
I know by now this continuing discussion of human bodily functions is probably getting disgusting to some readers.
Maybe it should, because human waste isn't just stinky and unsightly, it's a health hazard.
Over the years, there has been much gnashing of teeth in Anchorage about the plight of the homeless. If you're a lefty, the discussion tends to focus on how to help these poor, downtrodden people. If you're over on the right, it's easier to focus on the unsightliness -- the downright unAmericaness -- of panhandlers. Beggars, as we all know, are supposed to be reserved for third-world countries.
Largely lost in all the discussion about homeless is the one social issue that really ought to concern us all:
The crap in the woods.
Fecal matter spreads all sorts of disease from a wide variety of gastrointestinal ailments to more dangerous infections such as encephalitis, hepatitis and HIV. The latter is rare, but there have been a couple cases reported of HIV transmission via human fecal matter and cuts in the skin.
It could all sort of make you wonder whether you should have stopped during a run last summer to ease the pain in that throbbing, swollen ankle by soaking it in the cool waters of Chester Creek near where the trail passes under A Street. It wasn't far upstream that several filthy camps were cleaned up this year and a corpse rolled up in a tarp removed from the woods.
Humans figured out the disease problems associated with corpses and waste long ago, which is why we started first sequestering both and later developed treatment systems to speed the cleansing processes of nature.
None of the current waste-treatment systems, unfortunately, are designed for people living in camps in the woods.
Not to get too mavericky here, but maybe it's time for that to change.
There are any variety of things that could be done to make this problem better, from building permanent, easily maintained restrooms along greenbelt trails (there's a stimulus program for you) to creating camping areas specifically for the homeless to rounding these people up, sentencing them for vagrancy and sending them to some sort of community workhouse where they would be fed, housed and given something to do.
Frankly, this community would look better with a small army of low-wage litter collectors out there on patrol every day, and if we had to spend some money to hire people to supervise them, well, a job's a job. Nobody seems to worry much about all the money spent hiring corrections officers to supervise those sent to jail as part of the long, losing war on drugs.
Personally, I don't mind the stoner down the street all that much. I'm more concerned about all those people crapping in the woods just upstream from Campbell Creek Park, where parents take their young children to splash in the stream in the summer, or those relieving themselves along Ship Creek with its water running down toward the small mob of anglers splashing around in pursuit of salmon.
This is the crappy part of the homeless problem that cannot be ignored.
We can turn our heads from the panhandlers on city street corners or make ourselves feel better about what kind of people we are by tossing them a buck, but the real problem associated with homelessness needs to be dealt with because it stinks.
And it's unhealthy.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.