By Robin Meadows
California has nearly one-quarter of the nation’s homeless people—the most of any state by far—and thousands of them live in the Bay Area. Many are in outdoor encampments that lack basic services most people take for granted, including clean water, sewer hookups, and garbage collection. Human waste and the pathogens in it are untreated, and refuse piles up and escapes.
And, out of all the social and environmental costs of homelessness, the trash that blows from encampments into waterways may help spur a solution to this problem in the Bay Area. Under a new resolution by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, trash from homeless encampments now falls under the stormwater permit that requires Bay Area cities and counties to get storm drains virtually trash-free by 2022.
“I was personally shocked that the homeless problem was going to be addressed through the stormwater program—that this was the strongest regulatory driver,” says Brett Calhoun, a Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) water quality specialist.
Bay Area efforts to keep trash out of storm drains, and so out of streams and the Bay, began in 2009. However, cities soon recognized that homeless encampments are another a major source of trash in waterways. “Creeks have become a haven for homeless people to hide from society in general,” says Tom Mumley of the regional water board. “If you pick a stream adjacent to an urban area, you’re generally going to find an encampment there.”[space height=”12″] But it probably won’t be obvious. Take the stretch of Coyote Creek that winds along Wool Creek Drive in the City of San Jose. From the curb, it looks like a nature reserve. It’s thick with oaks, sycamores and willows, and birds sing high above. But a single step into the ribbon of trees is all it takes to see what they hide: a homeless encampment. Rough stairs cut into the ground, leading to a tent site carved into the stream bank, resembling a small cave. The earthen wall provides shelter from the elements and hides the site from view of the elementary school grounds across the street.
The land slopes steeply down to the creek, and a sycamore stands between the tent site and the slope. While this makes the site feel more secure, the tree’s unseasonably brown leaves say it’s dead or dying. The understory plants, which shelter salamanders and other ground-dwelling animals, are gone. And the stream bank is badly eroded. One good rain will wash loose soil down the slope and into the creek, where it will clog and bind gravel like cement. Steelhead need loose gravel for laying eggs as well as for overwintering fry habitat.
This encampment is vacant, except for the eye-popping amount of trash left behind. Layer upon layer of food containers, cardboard boxes, fabric, plastic bags, and refuse too matted and weathered to recognize. The stream bank is littered all the way down to the water, so that heavy rain will also wash plenty of trash into the creek.
Due to a combination of open waterways and sizeable homeless populations, streamside encampments are particularly common in Contra Costa County, Oakland and San Jose, and all three municipalities are addressing the issue. Contra Costa County cleans up encampments in flood control channels along streams, for example, while Oakland closes more than 100 encampments per year and prioritizes those within 250 feet of waterways. So far, however, only San Jose is participating in a formal plan to clean up trash from homeless encampments under the stormwater permit’s new provision, along with partners including the SCVWD and Santa Clara County.
The San Jose area also has the largest homeless population of the three municipalities. According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, in 2015 Santa Clara County was number eight nationwide for homelessness—6,556 people lacked housing during the cold of winter—and number three for chronic homelessness. Most of the county’s homeless live in San Jose, where the relentless rise in rent drives people out of their homes, according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco Center for Economic Development.
The two waterways that meander through the heart of San Jose—Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River—are a haven for the homeless. “The city has a small urban core that’s bookended by riparian corridors, which let people stay out of sight,” says Ray Bramson, who manages San Jose Housing Department’s Homelessness Response Team. He has worked to help the homeless since participating in AmeriCorps in North Carolina right out of college: “People were living on the streets—I saw a terrible need.”
Historically, when the city cleaned up encampments along creeks, people moved right back in. “Just going in and picking up garbage doesn’t go to the core of the issue for keeping creeks clean,” Calhoun says. “Source control is a better approach.” So officials sought a long-lasting solution to encampments. “The question was how to get homeless people permanently out of creeks,” Bramson says.
In 2011, San Jose began testing a possible answer: combining encampment cleanup with social services for the people living there, including individualized help, job placement, and housing. The million-dollar pilot program, funded largely by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took four years and focused on the largest encampment in San Jose and, according to news reports, the entire country.
Dubbed the Jungle and notorious nationwide, this encampment initially had 176 people living along a stretch of Coyote Creek that runs between two large parks. Once the people were out of the riparian area and into the social services system, it took more than two weeks to deal with the mess they left behind. Cleanup crews removed 618 tons of debris; 2,850 gallons of biowaste; 1,200 needles; and 315 shopping carts. The final step was keeping homeless people from moving back in: park rangers, who are police officers, patrol the area to deter entrenched encampments.
Building on this successful approach, San Jose and its partners established an encampment cleanup program under the stormwater permit. It’s a big job. More than 1,200 people lived along the city’s waterways in 2013. While that was down to fewer than 800 last year, it’s “still an enormous number,” says Bramson. Last year workers cleaned up 158 encampments along the city’s 140 miles of waterways.
Just a mile from the encampment with the cave dug into the streambank, cleanup is underway at another encampment along Coyote Creek near Tully Road. It’s flanked by a community garden on one side and by a library, elementary school, and baseball diamond on the other. The streambank is terraced into two levels of tent sites, which extend through the trees far along the creek. There are also toilet pits. The air smells sour and jumbles of trash are everywhere. Take-out cups, cereal boxes, bread bags, sheets, foil packets, wads of paper, tarps and so much more. It’s overwhelming.
A crew wearing gloves and heavy boots hauls furniture—mattresses, metal bedframes, an olive green couch, a black office chair—into a sanitation truck. Paramedics stand by in case of injury, needle sticks, or exposure to human waste. Park rangers and their police vehicles stand by in case of trouble.
At the far end of the encampment, a man and woman have packed what they can into crates but have yet to vacate. Dozens of other people stand in a nearby parking lot, surrounded by bicycles, and trash bags and shopping carts full of belongings. “They’ll move right back in,” Calhoun says. A park ranger says that as the program reaches homeless people who want help, encampments can become concentrated with difficult cases. This encampment, he adds, is hyperconcentrated with methamphetamine users who have refused social services.
To understand the homeless population better, the Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District commissioned a 2013 UC Berkeley study on encampments along waterways. “We wanted to know why people were setting up camps in our creeks under bridges,” says hydrologist Mark Boucher. Somewhat surprisingly, the study found that privacy rather than water is the main draw. “Usually when they don’t bother people, people don’t bother them,” he explains.
Another surprise was that the homeless population has several subgroups. “We’d never thought of the homeless that way—it was eye-opening even to homeless programs,” says Boucher, who serves as a liaison between the flood control district and social services. He’s also befriended a homeless man, shepherding him through the steps of getting help.
The subgroups include the newly homeless, who have just lost jobs and homes, and are the easiest to find and reintegrate into society. In contrast, old-timers are well-hidden and tidy, making them harder to reach. Hardest of all to reach may be veterans, who live singly or in pairs and, thanks to their military training, know how to hide in plain sight.
Besides job loss and skyrocketing housing costs, common causes of homelessness include disabilities and substance abuse. The 2015 Homeless Census & Survey found that 30% of homeless people in Santa Clara County have physical disabilities, 39% have mental illnesses, and 38% abuse drugs or alcohol. “Homelessness is a multi-faceted problem and needs multi-faceted solution,” Boucher says. “It takes massive collaboration to attack the issue, you have to fill up the holes where the need is.” He works with partners including government agencies, non-profits, and the religious community. Likewise, it takes massive collaboration for the stormwater management community to clean up urban runoff. And curbing litter and pollution in stormwater involves regulations and outreach aimed at all people living, working and traveling throughout the Bay Area, not just the homeless.
For all the complexity of the causes, however, homeless people obviously have something simple in common: they need homes. Demand far outweighs available resources but new funding is in the works. A state initiative called “No Place Like Home” was signed into law in July and will provide $2 billion for housing for people who are chronically homeless due to mental illness. And Bay Area voters authorized several measures in November that will house the homeless. A sales tax will provide $1.2 billion for homeless housing and services in San Francisco, and bonds will provide $580 and $950 million, respectively, for affordable housing in Alameda and Santa Clara counties.
Last year’s Homeless Census & Survey also found that 93% of respondents in Santa Clara County want permanent housing. “We need to help these people live a better life than along creeks,” says Calhoun. “It’s not where they want to be either.”
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