By Rob Hutsel
The San Diego River is an amazing resource. It is a cultural treasure and an ecological wonder with boundless potential to enhance the quality of life of people along its 52-mile length.
To realize this potential, perhaps one issue more than any other needs to be addressed: homelessness.
Last month, the San Diego River Park Foundation hosted an important count of homeless people along the river in the cities of San Diego and Santee. Thirty volunteers joined with staff to walk trails and struggle through brush at the break of dawn. It is an important “snapshot” of the river and is part of the national Point In Time Count, known locally as “We ALL Count.”
Our organization has led the river’s count for several years now, and the results are troubling.
In this most recent assessment, 98 tents or other structures were documented along with an additional 42 individuals. This equates to an estimated 189 people living along the river. Of these, 15 were in the city of Santee and 174 in the city of San Diego. This is a 95 percent increase over the 2015 count — truly a stunning and troubling number.
Between Interstate 15 and Friars Road, 15 shelters and eight individuals were documented. The San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless uses a 1.5 multiplier for each shelter. So that is equivalent to 31 people. Those encampments are generally in Grantville, rather than on the Mission Valley portion.
It is a stunning number, especially considering that we believe that many homeless people had been displaced by earlier rain and floodwaters. But even if this isn’t considered, 189 people are living in terrible conditions in our community. These people for whatever reason are living in harm’s way, areas that are underwater when the river rises.
We are greatly concerned about these people. We come at this challenging social and community issue from a different perspective. We are an organization that is dedicated to creating a better future for our historic San Diego River. One of our key programs is to clean up the river. We have organized volunteers to remove more than 1.8 million pounds — or 900 tons — of trash from in and along the river.
Our October survey documented that 74 percent of the trash along the river was related to homelessness. Just recently, a survey of the river between the 805 and 15 freeways documented 74,620 pounds of trash just on the south side of the river. In this recent survey, 100 percent of the trash was related to encampments.
We cannot help but be heartbroken to see first-hand this human and ecological tragedy.
Our dedicated staff and volunteers will keep working. Partners like the Alpha Project and Urban Corps will keep working alongside landowners, San Diego Police Department and their Homeless Outreach Team, city of San Diego Park and Recreation and Fire-Rescue Departments, and others. In Santee we will work with the city of Santee, San Diego County Sheriff and others.
It has become clear that a new strategy is needed and the community needs to weigh in. Imagine if you found a family member who was sleeping along the San Diego River. Imagine if you heard the river was rising. How would you feel?
We ask that everyone remember that each of these people has a mother, father, grandparent or other relatives. They may even have a son or daughter. Experts have told us that this is the hardest-to-reach population, people who often refuse services for whatever reason. Many have drug or alcohol dependence and/or mental illnesses.
We know that a solution can be found if we work together as a community to find it. While we won’t end homelessness, we can develop systems and programs to keep people out of harm’s way –– programs that are compassionate while also helping heal the river so it can reach its potential.
If you care about this issue, we ask that you let us know so we can keep you informed. If you want to speak up, we ask that you contact your elected officials so they know this is an important issue.
If you, your business or organization have ideas or time to work on this, let us know that, too. We welcome people who want to assist with our monitoring and assessment program. Each Tuesday, we have a volunteer team that walks along the river documenting areas which need attention.
With the count of 189 people living along the San Diego River, we estimate that throughout the year that number can grow to more than 250 people. Some have estimated the count can reach as high as 500. Based upon the recent survey, we also know that focused efforts can make a difference. An example is the Mission Valley Preserve, a city of San Diego-dedicated park, which has seen a dramatic decrease in large measure due to the dedicated efforts of Park Rangers and volunteers.
With improved coordination and collaboration, increased resources and the support of the community, we can build upon this and other successes. If we all work together, we are convinced that the next “We ALL Count” will show positive results. The San Diego River Park Foundation invites you to join us!
—Rob Hutsel is the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit San Diego River Park Foundation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-297-7380, ext. 108.