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San Diego River Restoration Involves Clearing Homeless, And Their Trash

Evening Edition

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.

Aired 1/16/14 on KPBS News.

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.

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.”

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.’”

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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Avatar for user 'river_rob'

river_rob | January 16, 2014 at 3:45 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Thanks KPBS for the story! This is a really challenging issue for us at The San Diego River Park Foundation. We welcome suggestions, ideas and volunteers to help work on it! Thanks.

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Avatar for user 'aztec69'

aztec69 | January 17, 2014 at 4:38 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

I predict (again) that there is going to be a big jump in the number of people living like this in places like this in the coming weeks and months because of the end of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people, many of whom have no alternative if they don't have a car to live in. The county, state and federal governments have no plan to deal with this; and most private charities are barely able to deal with their current work loads. First the number of people living in cars is going to go up. Then as their clunkers fail they'll be on the streets or in the river beds. And finally they'll be in hospital ERs or morgues waiting for the public administrator to wind up their affairs. It's sad, but it's reality; and it is going to happen. I know. I'm one of them.

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Avatar for user 'whlapinel'

whlapinel | January 17, 2014 at 9:02 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

@aztec69... Agree totally. Thanks, petroleum broadcasting system. The whole perspective of this article is warped. Apparently cleaning the river is the priority, and in order to clean the river we need to "clear homeless and their trash" - what a disrespectful way to talk about people who have been utterly abandoned by our society. But say we really care about the environment - we are wasting time making our backyard river appear nice and pristine so we can go have something nice to look at. The most destructive pollution is invisible - air pollution by industrial activity, runoff via the drainage system, chemicals that don't get removed by the water treatment system, etc. People take their trash to the curb where it's taken to destroy the earth somewhere else, but if it's on your street or in your local river the earth is going to hell in a handbasket. You're completely delusional if you think volunteer clean-up projects are going to make a dent in this destructive process. This is a political problem, this is a social problem, it's an economic problem. If you're not organizing people to fight for change, you're just greasing the skids for further injustice.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | January 17, 2014 at 10:28 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

whlapinel, you forgot to mention that it is an overpopulation problem as well.

As for abandonment, I think that goes both ways.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 17, 2014 at 1:12 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

aztec69 why are all of these people on unemployment benefits still? How long do those last now? 6 months? And they couldn't find a job this whole time? You are one of them? Why aren't you looking for a job instead of whining on KPBS comment boards? You people are really unbelievable. Why do you think it is the responsibility of society to support your poor life choices? Go get a job, be responsible for yourself. Stop leeching off of taxpayers.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | January 17, 2014 at 3:01 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago


You're not defeated. Make the healthiest choices possible until your circumstances change. Let yourself be helped and try to keep a positive attitude. Don't resort to crime. Believe in yourself.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 17, 2014 at 3:46 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

How about instead of "believing in yourself" and other positive thinking uselessness, work hard and get a job?

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Avatar for user 'RealistNow'

RealistNow | January 17, 2014 at 5:18 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

JeanMarc - what makes you think these people don't have part-time jobs, have jobs there were in declining industry, got their jobs outsourced, or are still training for a different career path, etc?

If only it was easy as 'working hard' then we would all be rich and employed. Tell that to the mom who had to work 2 full-time jobs and 1 part-time job just to makes end meet, but lose a job due to budget cuts.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 17, 2014 at 5:26 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

@Astec69, they have computers in hospital ER's?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 17, 2014 at 5:28 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

As_tec69's thinking is closer to John Mark's. He's just not very familiar with his past posts.

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | January 18, 2014 at 3:14 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

I take it none of you have actually spent anytime down there with the homeless. There they are free to shoot up, smoke meth, binge drink, urinate in public as they see fit. The live in a river bed because they abandoned the rules of our society. The dropped the morals and standards and allowed themselves to become homeless. While it is not terrible thing to live off the land. This is not that situation.

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Avatar for user 'RLA'

RLA | January 18, 2014 at 4:55 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Why not move them (homeless or whatever euphemism you choose) into the canyons surrounding SDSU so the river will be clean and the faculty, students and alumni can provide assistance without having to travel or get their feet wet?

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Avatar for user 'shariw'

shariw | January 19, 2014 at 10:02 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

The thing I have a problem with, is just because they are homeless and have no job, doesn't mean they can't pick up their trash! There's no excuse for littering the river banks with all sorts of debris. Come on now! When we used to go camping, we never left anything behind and always cleaned up our campsite. And we weren't always near our vehicle either; sometimes hiking miles away with nothing but a backpack.They could, for instance, acquire used garbage bags from dumpsters; empty them back into the dumpster and take a few with them so they could dispose of their trash properly. Being homeless is one thing; living like careless pigs is another.

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | January 19, 2014 at 3 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Problem is many are no longer human. They are zombies. We all know what needs to be done to zombies.

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Avatar for user 'RealistNow'

RealistNow | January 19, 2014 at 4:09 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

shariw - perhaps they have become zombie-like, can't think clearly all day, suppressing hunger everyday, live in dirty environment with your all scattered, etc. Even the most productive person can't start acting careless once he/she lose hope, drunk all day, etc.

I'm not defending the bums for creating a mess, but how do you expect a privilege them to make to make healthy decisions? Perhaps that's why they were homeless in the first place.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 22, 2014 at 11:28 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

shariw do you think people who choose to give up on life and spend their days doing drugs care about preserving nature?

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Avatar for user 'MaoTzu'

MaoTzu | January 22, 2014 at 12:47 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

100 people caused 1.6 million pounds of trash? I don't think so.

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