A Dangerous Game of Hide and Seek

Many areas throughout the United States are facing issues with public parks being used for things other than daytime recreation. Sometimes this involves overnight camping due to homelessness, but other times it includes drug use or other prohibited activity. The politics of homelessness are complex and daunting and obviously, park leadership is going to have very little to do with larger social crises.

Unfortunately, such uses create health hazards that disrupt the ability for people to safely use these public spaces. Setting up barriers and policing who can and cannot visit a public park would make it a park no one would like to visit. This leaves us with one option: keeping parks free and open, while having to deal with the consequences of occasional off-purpose use. This is a complicated issue that should be addressed by all districts that maintain parks.

The Pool covers thousands of acres of parks across many special districts. These parks can become hot beds for liability and worker’s compensation claims if districts do not maintain adequate levels of safety. Consider the ramifications of someone visiting a park, or assigned to clean up that park, stepping on a needle or coming into contact with human excrement and contracting a disease. This is one of many examples of adverse consequences that can occurs when a district neglects developing and implementing procedures for safely disposing of what some park visitors choose to leave behind.

The following are best practices that are adapted from and used by numerous parks and recreation entities including both special districts and cities:

  1. When material is on park property and appears to be refuse, park staff should dispose of it in a traditional manner. Any sharps (needles, broken glass, metal, etc.) should be disposed of in a sharps container. Never throw these away in trash cans or recycling bins. Call your local trash or public health department to find out about sharps disposal programs in your area. If a human body fluid (including waste) is found on playgrounds, bathroom areas, or in highly trafficked locations, then it should be cleaned by staff trained in blood borne pathogens. This may involve hosing off and spraying with bleach.
  2. If a camp is found, the police should be notified and a notice posted for removal within 48 hours. After that, park staff should go in and clean up and partner with law enforcement if necessary. Any valuables found should be turned over to the police. When a large area is involved, it is sometimes appropriate to contact local non-profits that specialize in cleaning up parks and other public places. These groups are dedicated to keeping their parks clean and easy to enjoy. Alternately, it may be a good idea to consider hiring a professional clean up service to help contract out some of the risk of cleaning these hazardous items.
  3. When cleaning up after a camp, having the right equipment can help avoid injury. This includes latex gloves under leather work gloves, trash grabbers, work boots, bleach sprayers, and water hoses.

There are many reasons for districts to keep their parks clean, safe, and freely accessible that go beyond mitigating the risk from workers’ compensation or liability claims. The best reason is to preserve the park as a space where people will feel welcome to play games, spend time with their families and pets, and enjoy these facilities as they were intended. If your district has any unique ways of handling this issue or has a policy you would like to share, let us know.

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