By Murray Schneider
Glen Canyon Park is a quiet natural space that can seem far removed from our enormous city, which surrounds its hillsides and thickets. The volunteers who spend their Wednesdays come with hopes of helping the land unfold in all its potential.
On January 29, they instead found a small tragedy, the sodden pieces of a young woman’s life tucked halfway down a hillside in a carefully crafted camp.
Like so many, she had found herself homeless, alone and in search of shelter.
The city gardeners whose daily work is to maintain our parks have decades of experience reading the signs of where a plant will spring up, what animal has dug a specific den, when the rains might come and what they will bring forth from the ground.
They have other, sadder, talents as well. One that has become all too common is reading the signs of a homeless encampment. Who lived there? Where did they come from? How long were they there and when did they leave?
It is not an ability anyone wants to cultivate. It is one two Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers never thought they would learn. But at the end of January, in a morning mist, they did.
Steve Uchida and Jim Hanratty began their volunteer shift that Wednesday thinking they would make a routine trek to the northern reaches of Glen Canyon to pull weeds. The day would end with bags filled with poison hemlock, Ehrharta and French broom.
What they found instead was a story told in suitcases, cardboard boxes and journals. The young woman had clearly abandoned the camp some time before. But she had left the whole of her life’s possessions, neatly placed in what must have been the only refuge she felt she had.
From the drawings and journals left behind, Rec & Parks believe the women was just out of her teens. “The woman must have been evicted,” said a city gardener, who has all too much experience finding the remainders of settled lives hidden away in natural spaces in the city. She was also an artist.
“We found sketch pads, Sharpie pens and water colors in her tent,” said the gardener, who asked that her name not be used.
Given the number of valises filled with clothing that had littered her hiding place, one envisioned her home’s closets having been swept clean. The gardeners wondered if she might have lived in one of the Diamond Heights apartments that tower close by.
Imagine her. Still in her 20s. Evicted or thrown out by friends, who knows? But with nowhere to go. Presumably no money. Looking around the street thinking “Where will I sleep tonight?”
As the volunteers and city gardeners carried her possessions out load by load, the sheer magnitude of what she must have gone through became clear.
Her camp was secreted far from the trail that begins at the Turquoise steps, which are found on the 500 block of Turquoise Way. To create her shelter she’d made her way well off the trail, through corkscrewing Arroyo willow. City gardeners discovered her makeshift shelter when they’d earlier removed scrums of Cape ivy.
“Her tent was over there,” said the gardener, pointing to a tangle of impenetrable willow.
The jerry built camp lay along Islais Creek, which now trickled with shallow water running the length of the 70-acre natural area. Along its banks grow willows, tangled trees that swivel horizontally toward water. The woman had had to squeeze through a labyrinth of branches to access her creek side refuge.
Imagine her carrying armload after armload of her belongings down the path, veering into the branches, bending here, stepping over there, clothes and bedding getting caught on a vine or a branch.
City workers had already spent 20 hours on the task before Uchida and Hanratty appeared. Now a nearly filled truck waited, destined for Recology’s Tunnel Road waste management facility. It was filled with half-a-dozen suitcases, dozens of garbage bags and boxes, an ice chest.
The knotted limbs of the pathway are widow makers. The young woman had twisted among them day after day for no one knew how long, carrying in each one of her possessions, journeys a Sherpa wouldn’t undertake lightly and certainly not after daylight.
She could have lived not too far from the men whose task it was to cart away her belongings. Ucheda lives on Monterey Boulevard and Hanratty on Stillings Avenue. At a position on the trail just below Turquoise Way they created a staging area, which they now used to deposit the woman’s possessions. Randy Zebell, another gardener, helped with the forlorn task.
In the camp they found syringes, whether for insulin or something else they don’t know. “The woman was neat,” a Recreation and Parks Department gardener told the volunteers, “because her needles were kept in one of those hazardous material containers you find in doctors’ office. In other park camps we’ll find uncapped needles strewn all over the ground.”
The volunteers were told to wear protective gloves as they went about their work. “We don’t ever want to hug the bags close to our bodies,” the gardener cautioned them as they cleared out the camp. “A sharp object can stick through.”
By the end of the day the four workers had removed 660 pounds of waste and debris from the camp hidden only a football field-length from Turquoise Way.
“We think the camp had been there since early December,” said the city gardener.
“The Department deals with an estimate of more than three tons of waste in our park system each week,” said Connie Chan, Deputy Director of Public Affairs, when reached later. “Such waste becomes the Department’s responsibility to dispose of in order to insure the public’s health and safety.”
It’s commonly reported a percentage of homeless suffer from schizophrenia, shunning City shelters and instead seek out the remotest enclaves so they can feel safe. Perhaps she suffered from this chronic brain disorder. Perhaps she was just a resourceful young person with no other options.
Hanratty, whose jeans were splattered with mud, followed the gardener, maneuvering beneath and stepping over gnarled trunks, careful not to raise his head suddenly for fear of cracking it on a limb.
A wooden clothes hanger told a tale, the signature of a discarded life. It curved from a damp cardboard box of clothing like an exclamation point.
“We wanted to remove the waste before it rained,” said the gardener, whose habitat restoration job description is a far stretch from the morale-lowering duties she now performed. “Otherwise it becomes too heavy.”
The gardener thanked Uchida and Hanratty: “I know it isn’t super pleasant, but it’s been much better with you both.”
“There’s not a park that doesn’t face this, and we deal with it week after week,” the gardener continued. “We’ve found another temporary encampment above the seep near Glenridge and Silver Tree, and the NAP has dealt with similar issues at Bayview, Bernal and Lake Merced.”
The gardener began spreading willow boughs throughout the inactive campsite. It was crusted with lichen. The lichen was soft and fuzzy, and on frigid, wind-swept winter nights high above Glen Park not even its velvety sheen could be mistaken for the safety net the trespassing woman had fallen through.
“We do this in the attempt to hide the area from further use,” the gardener explained.
“It’s tragic,” she continued, as she lifted two debris bags and followed Hanratty, who pushed another wheelbarrow load toward the waiting truck. “This woman had a really hard time.”
Altogether, the four workers made dozens of trips to the City truck until they’d finished. Eventually, they stood around, sipping water. The gardener reached into an open suitcase and retrieved a pair of red high heels, feminine and delicate. She raised them above the side of the truck’s flatbed.
Everyone looked, but said nothing for a moment.