SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
A couple years ago, Seattle faced a problem. The number of homeless people in the city was increasing, and many were living out of old RVs. Since there was no place to empty their waste water, much of it ended up spilled onto the streets and in the storm drains. Then Seattle Public Utilities assigned one of its employees to deal with it. Reporter Erin Slomski-Pritz spent a day with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING DOOR)
CHRIS WILKERSON: SPU waste water.
ERIN SLOMSKI-PRITZ, BYLINE: Chris Wilkerson knocks on the door of an RV parked in the shadow of an abandoned mall on Seattle's South End.
WILKERSON: Good day, sir.
JOHN HENDRICKS: All right. How are you doing today?
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: The man with the big smile who opens the door is John Hendricks. Wilkerson's job is to help people like him, who live out of their vehicles, dispose of their waste properly.
WILKERSON: And we took care of your waste last month. Did you do anything else to get your waste - drive anywhere, dump anywhere?
HENDRICKS: You know you my favorite people. I can't leave you guys hanging.
WILKERSON: I would miss you for sure. You're part of my life. OK.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Around 3,000 people live out of their vehicles in Seattle and the surrounding area. And according to the public utility, Seattle is the only city in the country with a full-fledged program to help them get rid of their waste. It was created last January because illegal dumping and accidental spills from RVs were getting into storm drains and posing a danger to public health and the environment. The city contracts with a porta-potty company to provide the pumping equipment. When the company's truck arrives, the driver greets Wilkerson in a COVID-safe way.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Elbows - come on.
WILKERSON: Oh, si (laughter).
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Wilkerson unrolls a giant hose from the truck and connects it to the waste tank on Hendricks's RV, but nothing comes out.
WILKERSON: Something's going wrong at his toilet, and it's clogged at the very tank, so we're going to basically set up our hose - go through his RV and suck it out through the top of the toilet.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: It's not a simple solution. Wilkerson has to run the hose inside the RV to clear the obstruction in the toilet. Then he comes back outside and empties out a month's worth of sewage from the tank. Earlier in the day, Wilkerson found a man living in a yellow box truck who he hadn't visited yet.
WILKERSON: Good morning. My name's Chris. What's your name?
DONALD: Hey, Chris. Donald.
WILKERSON: All right.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Wilkerson asked him how he goes to the bathroom.
DONALD: Usually I have to find, like, the sewer - the little sewer thing.
DONALD: I dump it in there.
WILKERSON: Dump it in there, OK. Please don't do that.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Dumping of this kind is exactly what the program was created to address. Last year, there were more than 100 illegal waste spills from RVs. But since Wilkerson started making his rounds, he says that number has fallen by 75%. While Wilkerson does his work, a group of volunteers from a local charity travel with him.
MARY JO SHANNON: Hi. St. Vincent de Paul. Do you need any food or any other stuff?
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Volunteer Mary Jo Shannon brings food and medical supplies to RV dwellers who need them.
SHANNON: But these people are wonderful, and they're human beings that deserve the respect and dignity that all of us do.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: And the people living in these encampments feel enormous gratitude for these visits. At one of the last stops of the day, Sean Eagle says that he hasn't been living in an RV very long, but he already appreciates the program.
SEAN EAGLE: It's awesome. You know, it helps out immensely. That's for sure. Or else I wouldn't know what to do.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: At the end of the day, Wilkerson gets ready to head back to his office.
WILKERSON: Be safe, guys.
SLOMSKI-PRITZ: In total, he serviced 12 RVs in Seattle's south end neighborhoods. While the program's aim is to help people dispose of their waste and protect the environment, it also brings a little joy to some of the city's most marginalized citizens. For NPR News, I'm Erin Slomski-Pritz in Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF J.J. JOHNSON'S "BLUE AND GREEN (INSTRUMENTAL)")
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