Pushed out of downtown, homeless people are moving to the San Diego River, a population shift likely to create new problems this winter.
This month, the San Diego River Park Foundation found 101 homeless camps in Mission Valley, the stretch of river nearest to downtown. That’s more camps there than the foundation has found along the entire river since it started counting in 2008. Last October, it counted just 56 camps in Mission Valley.
The city has focused for months on getting homeless people off the streets downtown. It opened one city-run camp and plans to open others in coming months.
But the River Park Foundation’s figures suggest one effect of the street-clearing is simply to move the people – and the city’s political and civic problems – from one part of San Diego to another.
“You push a balloon on one side, it pushes out on the other side,” said Rob Hutsel, the River Park Foundation’s executive director.
It’s not just the San Diego River that is seeing an influx of homeless people since enforcement efforts have ramped up downtown. The head of the Balboa Park Conservancy recently said the homeless population in the park doubled as the city stepped up enforcement and street cleaning downtown.
Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate, said he’s sure there’s a shift.
“They don’t just get beamed up to outer space,” he said in a text message.
Hutsel said he and his team expected some people to move to the riverside, but they guessed more people would try to stay in an urban environment.
The foundation’s volunteers say that the newcomers to the river look different than the people who have traditionally lived along its banks. Those people have apparently tended to be loners and survivalists able to scrounge for food. The newcomers aren’t yet as muddy or dusty and, at first glance, seem less prepared, Hutsel said. He worries they may not be ready for winter in the Mission Valley flood plain.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has saved many people from that area during winter floods. If the new population doesn’t know to get out of the way of the quickly rising river when it rains, the danger to homeless people and the people trying to save them may only grow.
The city has certainly stepped up its arrests of homeless people. City police made 270 arrests last month for two offenses commonly used to target the city’s homeless – triple the number of arrests they made in September 2016 for the same offenses. But city police have said they are offering help before citing or arresting anyone and trying to strike a balance between public complaints and homeless San Diegans’ rights.
Katie Keach, a city spokeswoman, said the city has been expanding the aid it provides to homeless people across the city.
“Homeless individuals now have more low-barrier options for places to live than they did in August,” Keach said in an email.
City officials are also doing work in the San Diego River Valley. In the last three months, the city has helped seven people camped along the river find another place to live, and given 91 people hepatitis A vaccines, Keach said.
The River Park Foundation was started largely in response to a massive sewage spill in 2000, but its mission now involves cleaning up trash, almost all of which comes from the camps along the river, according to the foundation.
The foundation, along with water-quality regulators, remain concerned about pathogens from the homeless people who live there, a problem that will only increase if more people move to the river. They go the bathroom in the river, or dump buckets that serve as portable latrines into it.
“The reality is all of that will be under water soon and it will be washing downstream and you know what’s downstream – Dog Beach, Ocean Beach,” Hutsel said.
Pathogens from human waste sicken surfers along the coast at the mouth of the river.
Public health and water-quality officials have struggled to figure out how much of coastal bacteria comes from homeless people living along the San Diego and other area rivers.
According to 2016 figures, about 900 to 1,000 people live along the banks of San Diego’s eight major rivers and creeks.
Earlier this year, county officials and a consultant studying bacteria in the rivers batted around various estimates of how many of those homeless people defecate in the river. The consultant, Brown and Caldwell, estimated 5 percent, but nobody really knows. Because of that, estimates about how many of the pathogens in the river come from homeless people vary so wildly that officials have said their own calculations should not be used to make policy decisions.
The county is working with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project on a three-year, $2.5 million study to find out where the human waste in the river is coming from, homeless people or leaky sewer systems and septic tanks. The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board is also about to order an investigation of the sources of human fecal matter ending up in San Diego waterways.
Transient populations are notoriously difficult to count.
In August, for instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a team to camps along the San Diego River. That team found “very few” people living there.
The foundation says it has a consistent way of counting over the past decade. It defines an encampment as a structure or multiple structures in a single spot. So, some camps may just be one person, while other camps may be a cluster of tents.
The foundation estimates – conservatively in its opinion – than an average of 2.5 people live in each camp. That would mean that about 250 people are living along the banks of the river in Mission Valley.
Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this story.