Homeless Along San Diego River Warned Of El Niño
Outreach team tells people living along the 52-mile river of flood dangers
Homeless advocates are scrambling to help unsheltered men, women and children ahead of El Niño — especially those living along the flood-prone San Diego River.
“Hello? Anybody home?” called out Brandon Smith, outreach supervisor with the nonprofit Alpha Project.
Smith and his team recently scoured the riverbanks along Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley for people in need.
“We’re from Alpha Project,” he shouted downstream.
Tucked behind thick vegetation along the slow trickling stream were dozens of tents and makeshift dwellings. Trash and soiled clothes outlined the public land that the destitute have claimed as their own.
"How are you doing, sir?” Smith asked a man who peered out of his tent. “All right,” he answered. “Good,” Smith replied. “Just coming by to see if you need any food, snacks or assistance.”
The river-dwellers seemed wary of visitors. Smith said some are alcoholics or mentally ill. Others prefer the solitary lifestyle. A few see the river as a place to live while they recover after losing a job.
Smith estimates 500 people live along the 52-mile river, which after four years of drought appears in some sections as more of a long, stagnant puddle. But history shows when heavy rains fall, the river can quickly transform into an overflowing raging torrent, washing away everything in its path.
“We always stress that river rescues are the most dangerous,” said Lt. John Sandmeyer, leader of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s River Rescue Team. “We’re very used to dealing with ocean currents and we’re very comfortable in the ocean. But when you’re in the river, it’s just moving all the time — same direction. There’s no let up.”
Sandmeyer recently voiced his concerns to county leaders and emergency officials. He said his team is working diligently to train other emergency crews for flood rescues.
“We do feel if we get a few days in a row of rain and then repeat it week to week this winter, it’s going to really stress the system and our network of responders,” Sandmeyer said.
That's why along the river Smith was warning homeless people of the potential risk from El Niño.
“The El Niño season’s coming up so there’s going to be a lot of bad rain,” Smith told a homeless man, whose encampment was set up near the water’s edge. “We want to make sure everyone’s notified in the riverbed so we don’t have any casualties.”
The team offered housing referrals to those they encountered, though options are slim, Smith said. The encampments are evidence of San Diego’s limited shelter space, he added.
A homeless count taken in January found more than 8,700 homeless people in San Diego County. Nearly 4,500 were in shelters, while another 4,000 were living outdoors — a 4.3 increase from last year. The unsheltered included 131 children under the age of 18.
“If the inn is full, then we do turn people away. We try to get to them as quickly as we can and we also assess their vulnerability out there,” said Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages.
The nonprofit organization shelters 1,500 people each night, including 350 beds that replaced the two winter tents that the city used to set up annually.
Vargas said he’s noticed the population boom in the homeless.
“We’re seeing it in our lines, in those who come to us,” he said. “We’re seeing (it) in those who have to wait longer as a result.”
Vargas said he’s concerned about the El Niño forecast and is working with other faith communities to secure more emergency beds for the homeless.
“We’re trying to all band together in order to add up those numbers,” he said.
Vargas opens his two dining halls during cold winter storms to accommodate 200 additional people.
Despite his efforts and those by other groups that help the homeless, hundreds will likely have to endure potentially treacherous conditions on the streets.
“Heat, cold weather, wet, rain, wind — it’s very hard out here,” said Terrance Livingston, who was homeless for three years after he and his wife became buried in medical bills from her cancer treatment.
The couple now lives at St. Vincent de Paul Village shelter. Livingston said he’s worried about those who aren’t so lucky.
“You’re going to be wet constantly,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are going to be sick, from either a cold, pneumonia — especially the elderly that’s out here.”
Smith said his Alpha Project team plans to work around the clock this winter, as they do every year, to keep people safe.
“We provide blankets, socks, plastic ponchos … tarps, so that they can have some sort of covering,” he said.
Forecasters expect El Niño’s wet weather to hit the San Diego region as early as next month.