‘Trash Trolls’ provide free garbage collection services to unhoused people in west county

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, October 13, 2021

Sally Sorenson

Sally Sorenson, who with her husband Keary are the "Trash Trolls," adds an item to the load of trash they'd picked up in west county.

You don’t have to pay the troll toll to get on a highway in west county, but you can make a tax-deductible donation to the adventurous pair providing trash removal services for homeless people in the area.

Keary and Sally Sorenson are the “Trash Trolls,” collecting garbage in the Lower Russian River area for at least 25 years. On a near-daily basis, the couple gather and dispose of trash beside the river, the road and the downtown Guerneville area to keep it tidy for the tourists and uncluttered for the unhoused people residing there.

They also operate Everclean North, a cleaning and restoration company treating carpets, upholstery, rain gutters, mold and septic damage remediation and beyond.

The two drove a truck and trailer out to visit who they could find living on the edge of Highway 116. One of the first things Keary said to them was that they ought to move on before January when the river would rise from whatever rainfall comes this year. The small camp’s residents said they planned to relocate soon anyway.

Unhoused people don’t have the money — much less an address — for garbage collection services, Keary asserted.

“If we don’t, where are they going to put the stuff? Well, you look,” he said, gesturing to the riverbank. “So, when the river comes up, where does it go?” Keary asked. Sally hollered, “Out to the ocean.”

It takes wheels to make a run to the dump and the camp’s residents don’t have a vehicle to make their own drop offs, a woman living there said. There’s not a trash can in sight where they live beside the winding road.

“We don’t mean to be messy. We really don’t. It just gets overwhelming,” she said, adding later, “If they didn’t do it, nobody would.”

Keeping it clean at an encampment isn’t just environmentally challenging, but interpersonally, too, the woman said. Sometimes people leave things behind when they split from a camp and others may haul whole bags of trash over instead of picking out what they need and throwing the rest back in the dumpster, she said.

“And we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, you want us to clean, but you’re not providing us a way to do it. How do you expect us to do this? It’s not exactly their responsibility, but it’s not always our fault,” she said.

The Sorensons empty the trash cans in downtown Guerneville as much as they can to welcome tourists into town, although Recology still does its rounds, Keary said. “They (tourists) don’t come to a town that’s stinky, ugly, dirty, filthy, they come to a clean town. So, we keep them here longer. Our businesses do better by us doing this,” he said.

Most Sonoma Coast State Park visitors come through Guerneville and Highway 116 to get to the beach, Keary said, and can be put off by piles of trash on the side of the road.

Now that West County Community Services (WCCS) is sponsoring the Trash Trolls fiscally, people can make tax-deductible donations to the couple through WCCS, the organization’s executive director Tim Miller said.

Donations can be made on the WCCS websitehere, or made payable to West County Community Services, PO Box 325, Guerneville, CA 95446, noting “Trash Trolls” for its purpose, as stated in the Russian River Chamber of Commerce’s Sept. 30 newsletter. Their work costs close to $30,000 a year in garbage bags, dump runs, truck and trailer maintenance and fuel, Keary said. “Yeah, we put a lot of money out. A lot of money out.”

The Sorensons are uniquely equipped and motivated to do this work. They’re committed to treating homeless people as equals and protecting the Russian River and therefore the ocean from plastics.

From 2003 to the later 2010s, the couple volunteered with the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary, the Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences and trained to perform necropsies of seabirds, harbor seals and sea lions, they said. This was especially traumatic for Keary, whose eyes welled up discussing all the seabirds they found starved to death with bellies full of plastic around 2010.

The Trash Trolls have won multiple awards over the years, for their trash removal services and for helping prove marine animal transference along the west coast related to the ocean’s rising temperatures, they said, including from the American Red Cross in 2016 and former representative Lynn Woolsey.

“Doing this and helping him keeps that garbage out of that river and the entire ocean. That’s what we do. That’s why we do this,” Keary said, referring to another person living in the encampment.

“Since we’ve been homeless before, with and without each other, we know what they need,” Sally said. According to Keary, they also broke from addiction together over the course of a few years. “Obviously, you treat them like human beings, first. Second, you kind of get to know what’s going on. Third, we work with them to clean it up. Fourth, we just try to encourage them to keep going, and don’t do this and don’t do that,” Sally said.

“‘Let me help you.’ That’s where it all starts. ‘Let us help you.’ Treat ‘em as a person, treat ‘em kindly, you get results. And the results are no plastic in the ocean,” Keary said.

The Trash Trolls advocate for a village model rather than a shelter to support unhoused people and meet their needs. Sally said a village should offer food services, security and fire emergency services and provide a clinic and veterinary services for dogs. Seniors, families, homeless people “just passing through” and those in vehicles all need a place to be, she said.

“There’s many homeless, many types of homeless, many mental issues, drug addiction, alcohol. Fentanyl,” she said, growing embittered. The synthetic opioid is the major catalyst of drug overdose deaths rising across the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We didn’t have that s— when we were younger. I’m not happy,” Sally said.

At first, the Sorensons would visit only abandoned camps but later began approaching occupied camps to offer trash removal services, helping people get rid of their refuse as they try to disperse.

The Trash Trolls have befriended some homeless locals, and woefully, they had more to talk about this time at the camp where a man dear to many died weeks earlier from suspected heart problems. They discovered his tent materials may still contain postmortem fluids since his body’s removal, so the Trash Trolls returned to the site that weekend to dispose of the materials, Keary said on Oct. 11.

The woman living at the encampment said that while she hasn’t known the Sorensons for long, she feels their work is deeply honorable.

“As far as I’m concerned, I aspire to be like them when I’m older. That’s the basic, ultimate end goal for a dumpster diver, is to be the one to take out all the trash,” she said. “I don’t mean I want to be homeless for the rest of my life when I say that, either. I mean it’s the dream of a dumpster diver to be able to do what we do, without being told no.”

The Trash Trolls credit their success to their life experience. “I’ve had a very colorful life — I still (do) — but I ran with everybody at the time. I ran with carnies, I ran with bikers, I ran with a couple of ‘My god, you want how much? Let her have another $5, $20 drink’ — I knew a couple rich guys at the time,” Sally said about growing up young and poor in west county. “I’ve been around and I love it, and there’s nothing that fazes me. Yeah, some of these mattresses stink, but we did necropsies for the Gulf of the Farallones.”

Photo by Camille Escovedo

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