Homeless encampment an ‘ecological disaster’

Posted: May 19th, 2017 | From the cover, News, Top Stories | No Comments

Doug Curlee | Editor at Large

Massive cleanup behind Grantville Home Depot

Even people who are used to seeing things like the homeless encampment behind Home Depot in Grantville on the bank of the San Diego River say they’ve never seen one worse.

Trash from homeless encampments along the San Diego River in Grantville brought out volunteers for an ongoing effort to clean the area. (Photo by Doug Curlee)

It’s been there quite a while, and authorities say it was more than a homeless spot. They say it may have hidden a stolen bicycle ring that ran for a couple of years.

Grant Luna, an attorney who lives just downstream at the Mission Playmor apartments, said he knows it’s been there at least that long.

“There has been stuff stolen from our complex on an ongoing basis,” he said. “We’ve all lost bikes, barbeques, tools. Anything that can be carried away has been.”

Home Depot had tried repeatedly to fence the area off, but fences are pretty much made to be defeated in situations like this one.

In an effort to stymie the homeless and trash problem, volunteers from the San Diego River Park Foundation organized a cleanup of the area. The event got underway early in the morning of April 26, and the people there to start the cleanup were staggered by the amount of cleanup that was needed — not to mention staggered by the reeking smell of the place.

District 7 Councilmember Scott Sherman was stunned by what he saw.

“I didn’t realize it was this bad,” he said. “I didn’t know it was this intense.”

Getting it started wasn’t a snap.

Although the 1-acre site is in the city of San Diego, the land is really under the jurisdiction of the California Fish and Wildlife Service. Once that agency was on board, the work could start in earnest.

It proved to be a backbreaking job.

Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer David Gibson (center) and San Diego River Park Foundation CEO Rob Hutsel (right) talk to a volunteer while overseeing the effort (Photo by Doug Curlee)

River Park Foundation CEO Rob Hutsel couldn’t believe how much needed to be done.

“Our best estimate is that we’ll take 100,000 pounds — 50 tons — of trash and garbage out of this site before we’re done,” he said. “We’ll fill 20 of those large dumpsters — maybe more.”

The job was so immense that a second cleanup was scheduled for May 17. Around 40 volunteers from the San Diego River Park Foundation’s River Rescue Team, with support from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Regional Water Quality Board. Their goal was to fill at least four 40-yard dumpsters with an estimated 25,000 pounds or more of trash and begin repairing the area’s riparian habititat.

During the recent floods, Hutsel can only guess at how much damage was done to the water as the rains flooded the encampment. There’s no telling how much dangerous material leaked into, or was thrown into, the San Diego River.

One very interested — and upset — person at the cleanup effort was Dave Gibson, executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“What people don’t know, but should know, is that encampments like this use the San Diego River as an open-air toilet, and this puts dangerous human pathogens in the river,” he said. “You can compare it to what happens when there’s flooding in the Tijuana River valley down south. Human waste carries dangerous pathogens that can sicken people all along the river route, all the way down to our beaches. People can die from the effects of those waste products. And we know this is far from the only such problem along the river route. We don’t really know how many such encampments there are, and we need to find out and do whatever is necessary to put a stop to it.”

That will be hard and expensive, to do. Gibson said he has talked to every city in the region that has water flowing through it, and more or less put them on notice. He knows it’s hard to do, because it involves the homeless problem everywhere.

Volunteers haul a load of trash from a homeless camp to a dumpster during a cleanup along the San Diego River in Grantville. (Photo by Doug Curlee)

Gibson has an arrow in his quiver he really doesn’t want to use, but it’s there if all else fails — mandatory abatement orders. He doesn’t want to have to issue them and considers them a weapon of last resort. But the power is there.

As the April 26 cleanup got underway and River Park Foundation volunteers started digging in, San Diego police where there to roust out any people still staying there, and offer help if wanted.

Colin and Dawn, a couple who didn’t want last names used, said they didn’t see any sort of bicycle chop shop there.

“I’ve been here better than two years, and I would have seen it if it was going on, and I didn’t.” Colin claims. “People need places to live — to survive. This may not be much, but it was all we had.”

Of the 20 or so people believed to have been living in the encampment when the cleanup started, most simply packed up and left for wherever. Two actually went to jail on outstanding warrants.

Colin and Dawn may have been luckier. The Police Department Homeless Outreach Team offered them a trip to a shelter, and storage space for their belongings.

They huddled and talked about it for several minutes, and finally decided to accept the offer.

It makes you wonder how many other such encampments there might be along the path of the San Diego River.

There’s no exact number, but the best guess is … many.

—Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at


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