By Rob Hutsel
Survey documents 41 percent increase
Staff and volunteers of The San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF) are often asked about homeless people in Mission Valley, especially along the river. In fact, it is one of the most frequently asked questions, and it is usually followed by, “what is being done about it?”
As an organization dedicated to restoring the health of our region’s namesake river, it is a question which we don’t have a great answer for. In recent years, we have been increasingly pulled into this question as the future of the river and the planned 52-mile-long San Diego River Park and associated trail system become intertwined with the homeless population.
A few years ago, we were asked by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to participate in the annual homeless survey known as We All Count. As an organization, SDRPF has lots of survey experience and systems in place documenting the health of the river.
We knew that our data has demonstrated that an increasing percentage of the trash we found in and along the river was sourced to homeless encampments. We also knew that previous surveys had undercounted this population. So we jumped at the opportunity.
We believed that with better representation of the true count, additional resources might be identified for these people that live on the banks of our historic San Diego River.
Too many times we had assisted with rescues of people and their pets in flood water or came across bodies of homeless people who tragically had lost their life in homicides, fires or other means. We felt strongly that we needed to provide our expertise to be part of the solution.
The results, while not surprising, are troubling. We documented a 41 percent increase from the previous year in the area from roughly Friars Road at the upstream edge of Mission Valley to Interstate 5. A total of 246 people were documented either living in tents and other structures or out on their own. With recent weather, we assume this number was lower than truly reflective of the population that lives in this area.
These are 246 people that are someone’s child and people that are part of the Mission Valley community. So what can be done?
The San Diego River Park Foundation is not an expert on addressing homelessness. But we want to be part of the solution. Thanks to our amazing volunteers, we already remove more than 200,000 pounds of trash annually from in and along the river. Property managers and public agencies removed many more tons.
In an October 2016 survey that we conducted, more than 90 percent of the trash in and along the river in Mission Valley can be sourced to homeless encampments. Latrine sites are common along the river in certain areas and high levels of bacteria are associated with trash. Therefore, the health of the river and the community is clearly linked to reducing the number of people that live along this same waterway.
We suggest that homeless surveys happen more frequently to better understand the seasonal changes in the number of homeless people along the river. We call on our civic leaders to include Mission Valley in any strategies to reduce homelessness Downtown and elsewhere.
Finally, we ask that the community of Mission Valley ask how it can be part of the solution to take meaningful actions to reduce homelessness. Perhaps businesses, HOAs and others can pool resources to work more strategically. In addition, the community is going through a Community Plan update and homelessness should be part of that discussion.
We invite dialogue on this important issue and look forward to being part of the coordination of resources and integration of strategies. Much already happens. There are many hardworking, thoughtful people and organizations that are working to make a difference but as this year’s We All Count showed, the number of homeless people has increased.
Hopefully, one day we will have an answer to the question, “what is being done about it?” More importantly, we look forward to the day when progress has been made and people are only asking us about where the nearest river park or trail is located.
—Rob Hutsel is president and CEO of the San Diego River Park Foundation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 619-297-7380. For more information about the San Diego River Park Foundation, visit sandiegoriver.org. For more information about We All Count, visit rtfhsd.org/pitc/.