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San Diego River Restoration Involves Clearing Homeless, And Their Trash

Video by Katie Schoolov

The San Diego River is one of the region’s most scenic and historic treasures. It’s also the birth place of California. But one San Diego group says it’s in need of a rebirth. They dream of a river-long system of parks and trails. KPBS reporter Susan Murphy tells us first, they’re working to clear a path through all the trash.

A San Diego group is hoping to restore the 52-mile San Diego River to its once-scenic splendor, with trails, parks and open space. But first it has to clear a path through an endless cycle of trash.

It's warm and dry, the middle of a mid-week morning, as Richie Aguilera looks for all the world like a fishing guide leading his band to the banks of the San Diego River.

But they're not carrying poles and bait boxes. Instead they've got black garbage bags and sharp, metal sticks ideal for snatching up trash.

"We’re going to be in this area; and then if I can get a person or two, maybe you and Alex to help me scout out the other side," he says.

They're not here to pull fish from the historic waterway; they're harvesting trash, hoping to restore the river to its once-scenic splendor.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

River Rescue volunteers with the San Diego River Park Foundation clean up trash along the riverbanks in Santee on January 8, 2014.

"I’m willing to have a hand on this tarp here if anyone is willing to come over here with me," calls out one volunteer, balancing on a log as she retrieves debris from the river-bottom.

This small group is among thousands of volunteers credited with pulling 1.6 million pounds of trash from the river over the past six years.

Their main challenge? The refuse (and worse) left behind by homeless souls drawn to the river's edge by its seclusion and promise of a respite from hard times, however brief.

Nearly 100 homeless people call the San Diego riverbanks "home." Some live alone in single tents, while others have built make-shift communities, living in groups of 10 or more.

“When we got here and got started, we literally found the equivalent of rooms full of trash,” said Rob Hutsel, executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation.

“And that was left over from decades of neglect,” he added.

The nonprofit is striving to enhance the 52-mile-long waterway, which stretches from the Cuyamaca Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Hutsel envisions a river-long system of parks, trails and open space.

“And celebrate this incredible place," said Hutsel. "I mean, this is the birthplace of California and it’s so significant. It’s a cultural treasure."

Clearing a path through the trash is the first step. Hutsel acknowledged it’s frustrating when they clean up one area and river dwellers migrate and trash another.

The Foundation's October 2013 survey found nearly 120 active and inactive homeless encampments along a 30-mile river segment; many had been cleared away just months prior.

"So if we work, let’s say in the western part of Mission Valley, which is very clean right now, then they’ll move to let’s say under 805 or by the stadium," explained Hutsel.

The unending cycle of trash has substantial impacts on people and the environment. Hutsel said homeless people drink from the river and they use it as a toilet and a bathtub.

It's also home to some very unique animals and plants, such as cottonwood and willow trees.

“The river runs through public parks, kids are out here fishing, enjoying the river and downstream, there’s dog beach, Ocean Beach — some really popular swimming beaches as well and surfing places.”

Hutsel said progress is being made on the trash, but more needs to be done for the people.

"The reality is these people are the people that aren’t being served by the system today. And new solutions need to be found, and we’re willing to be a partner in that and figure it out," Hutsel said.

Ten miles upstream near Qualcomm Stadium, Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, is scouring the riverbanks for people in need.

"We’ve got some outreach stuff — anybody home?" McElroy calls out.

Reaching the destitute population takes a devotion of time, McElroy says, because most river dwellers are suffering mental illness, they self medicate with drugs and alcohol and they want to be left alone.

“Developing relationships with men and women who are disenfranchised, getting them to trust you, and then starting the recovery process,” McElroy explains. “It’s not a real complex thing to do, but it takes time.”

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, searches for homeless people in need along the San Diego River in Mission Valley on January 8, 2014.

McElroy and his team regularly search homeless camps for signs of trouble. On this day, they find a ragged blue tent filled with inhalers and bottles of medications amid the squalor, but nobody’s home.

“Yeah, we’ve got to come back here,” he says. “I can tell this is a lady by the clothes. In fact, I know it’s a lady. Wow, that’s sad.”

When he finds a person, he offers them supplies, shelter and health treatments. Recently, he found a mom and a dad with their 2-year-old baby.

“And they were afraid that if they were seen downtown that Child Protective Services would take the child," McElroy says. "So we worked with them, got them into a motel, got the dad working again, and so far they’re moving the right direction."

McElroy said another part of the solution is tough love.

“We need to have the stick too. We need to have the cops saying, ‘You can’t be down here. These guys are offering you a place to stay, they’re offering you all these need to get up out of here.’”

Photo by Katie Schoolov

An abandoned homeless encampment litters the San Diego Riverbanks near Cuyamaca in Santee.

Back in Santee, River Rescue volunteers continue their crusade for a clean river, picking up one piece of trash at a time — the same way it was brought in.

They're hopeful when they find an abandoned camp that it’s a sign someone else has been helped, and there will be one less camp to clean up in the future.

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