Police show up and force people out, and dispose of their belongings.
The homeless who camp near the San Diego River live differently than the homeless who live on downtown streets, according to two San Diego State University professors who have been studying them. Many of the river dwellers plan their days around water – clean, fresh, safe water purchased in bottles and in bathrooms at Starbucks, Target and the library – or from the spigot behind the IKEA store. They have about the same access to bathrooms as downtown dwellers, but they count on nearby businesses for places to wash up and sit down, because there are fewer public restrooms – which is not to suggest there are more than a few downtown. And camping in the river bed, they report interacting with far more with people on environmental missions and far fewer service providers. Encounters with the police are also less common, the researchers found in interviews.
River camp with stripped bicycles
Since September 2018, San Diego State University professors of public affairs Shawn Flanagan and Megan Welsh (who study criminal justice policy) and their students have interviewed 84 people who live in the San Diego River bed. “We don’t have a lot of research about why people stay in these locations that are so difficult to access,” Flanigan said at a recent presentation. ”Other research suggests there’s shade, access to water, safety because they’re hidden; more privacy. You might feel you’re less likely to be a victim.”
The professors initially agreed to interviews and to show me the slides they showed to the Mission Valley planning group but later declined. Flanigan, in an email, said that they could not share unpublished results despite giving the presentation. But they were surprised by whom their interview subjects said they run into the most.
“When we asked people about their interactions with service providers, it was pretty low. Their interactions with police were higher,” she said. “They’re much more likely to report interactions with organizations like the San Diego River Foundation – they’re much more likely to interact with environmental organizations than homeless service providers.”
Rob Hutsel, executive director of the San Diego River Foundation says he’s one of the environmental types who talks with the people in the camps. His perspective on the homeless is different than the public policy professors, whose concerns include improving sanitation. “We’ve been encouraged that the number of encampments has declined over time,” he says. “There were 117 and now there are 17. They’ve consolidated in areas that are hard to reach, like under the 805 – out of sight and out of mind.”
As an open space advocate, Hutsel has been around such camps since he volunteered in Penasquitos Canyon, where migrant workers built robust camps, living off radar and rent free so they could send more money home. “It’s sad people have to live like that,” Hutsel says. River foundation volunteers go our twice a week to document the conditions along the river and surroundings. That includes documenting piles of trash and trying to identify the sources. The river foundation and its volunteers removed 260,000 pounds of trash this year, Hutsel says. Hutsel has organized many clean ups and has seen the buckets of filth that are dumped into the river.
The data the river foundation volunteers gather each week is part of a five-year project ordered by the state Water Quality Control Board to identify ongoing sources of fecal contamination in the river watershed. Potential sources are endless, with leaking sewage pipes, old septic tanks and so on, but it’s clear that the homeless camps are big contributors. (Many water quality-related studies have been done.) The river bed population exploded in 2017, when San Diego police began aggressively leaning on the homeless downtown during the deadly hepatitis outbreak, when the population shifted away from the pressure zone to get away from the police, the sidewalk power-washing and the outbreak.
Living in the surprisingly wild hidden river area deep in the 3,200-acre valley also lets people avoid the police, who tend to show up and force people out – and, with a few days warning, dispose of their belongings. And it lets people stay away from the downtown tribe of homeless, something that became important during the hepatitis A outbreak in 2017, when 20 people died and more than 500 were made very sick. A memo from July 2017, when about 275 cases were counted, said the county identified four people diagnosed with the liver-destroying virus who live in the river bed.
“You’re really close to a lot of amenities, the trolley, businesses, restrooms for hand-washing, and the recycling center (which just closed),” Flanigan says. But there are problems with basic sanitation. “There are really high levels of open defecation, of not being able to wash their hands, not being able to use soap. There are a lot of barriers to being able to find bathrooms, especially at night.”
More than half of the 84 people reported they work to earn money. “Many of our participants report having some kind of employment,” she said. “(They say) We saved up money and stayed in a motel a few nights. Some folks have formal employment, and the recycling economy is an important source of income.”
The recycling center in Mission Valley closed recently, residents say, but another is expected to open in the next months. OneEarth Recycling will be launched in a shipping container in the Westfield mall parking lot.
People living in the river bed know the river is contaminated, the interviews revealed. “Folks seem to know they shouldn’t have contact with river water. The lack of access to those (hygiene) amenities, I would guess, has a lot to do with that,” Flanigan says.
As a matter of public policy, the professors would like to see basic hygiene – showers, toilets, washers – and trash disposal provided by local authorities instead of the local businesses, some of which struggle to deal with the conflicting needs of their customers and staff, and the homeless people.
“There are some very basic service provisions that could move that dependence away from private businesses,” she says. The 84 people interviewed said they would appreciate the chance to use toilets, to get rid of trash and be able to wash up.
“People have a lot of awareness that poor hygiene is a real problem that affects how they’re perceived,” Flanigan said. “They’d say: Honestly I think the public wouldn’t hate us as much if we weren’t dirty and didn’t leave trash everywhere. I would love to be clean, I would love to smell good, I know that I don’t. I would love to wash my clothes, I would love to have some place to dispose of my garbage.”
Mission Valley Planning Group member Josh Weiselberg said he hopes that the coming San Diego State development in the valley will include amenities for the homeless, maybe some housing. He noted that there’s already a methadone clinic near the 163. “This is an excellent opportunity to locate this stuff in Mission Valley,” he said. “They’re already here. They affect businesses now….. This is a chance to do this and have students work on these issues before they graduate.”