Resting Safe, an environmental investigative research project underway

With a 1,342% increase in unique homeless encampments reported in the media since 2007, rest areas now exist on a scale “unprecedented since the Great Depression”.

As Right 2 Survive has worked to consult on the tent cities, rest areas and tiny house communities across the country, we have wanted to address some environmental concerns voiced by residents. We have started to embark on some of this with our environmental justice lens. We know that when encampments are built on polluted sites, often the only urban land not slated for immediate development or planned green spaces, they have environmental hazards such as air pollutants or soil toxins. A community-controlled solution is necessary, one that allows rest area communities themselves to diagnose and reduce exposure to harm. The project, Resting Safe, brings together houseless community leaders of rest areas, encampments and activist-researchers to investigate and intervene in environmental hazards associated within areas houseless are residing. This project will arm houseless communities with information about their sites’ precise types and levels of pollution. It will also, upon completion, provide tools for communities to reduce risks, or push government agencies to do so. Ultimately, this project aims to ensure that houseless intentional communities establish greater control over urban spaces, emerge better equipped to fight for more just land use, housing, healthcare and police systems.

The project is the inspiration of Erin Goodling.  Erin is an NSF-Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon and a long standing member of Right 2 Survive. We first collaborated in issues affecting the houseless and communities of color most impacted by the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. We created media and a safe guide to explain the toxic pollutants in the Willamette river and what are considered safe amounts of fish consumption as a resource tool.

The Resting Safe research project will take around 3 years to complete and will be intensely overseen by the University of Oregon. More can be found at www.restingsafe.org. In the first phase of work, a research team was assembled to identify what types of pollutants we aim to test.  Another team will coordinate on locating and reaching out to various intentional houseless communities across the nation through phone interviews.

In the second phase, we have prepared a short survey for understanding the conditions that impact the communities willing to participate in our research. We will ask about environmental conditions, access to clean water, how their space came into creation, and what other organization they are working with. This will help us determine where we are going to test and to notice any patterns that emerge.

Hazard Assessment & Remediation comes in phase 3 of Resting Safe. Out team will work with a handful of pilot intentional houseless communities to research site histories, conduct soil and air sampling, and inventory other environmental hazards on or around sites. Each community will collectively make decisions about how to address pollution and hazards, following a harm reduction approach. We will provide some low-cost suggestions and advice on how to best use the information we learn from this study.

Phase 4 entails the development of a toolkit from a multimedia approach. The research from our Pilot Sites, how to obtain test soil kits and ways suggested to environmentally friendly remediate the soil will by included in this information. We intend to include a platform for ‘crowdsourcing’ of information and maybe an email or hotline for people to have questions or concerns addressed.

This is a long term project with many components. Some others involved in the research include; Julia McKenna, Ibrahim Mubarak, Lisa Fay RN and Lisa Funk PhD Researcher, Christine Hawn U of Baltimore, Dillon Mahmoudi, Nathen McClintock and Anthony Levenda ASU and PSU Co-Investigators, Melaine Malone Assistant Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell.