The city of Santee has taken a proactive approach with transients who set up illegal camp sites along the San Diego River and other greenbelt areas.While efforts are made to connect the homeless to food, shelter and social services, the city actively discourages people from living permanently in the riverbed.
Transient encampments cause a host of problems, including increased risk of wildfires, pollution of the river from human sewage and garbage, and the perception that the community is not safe.
Sweeps Conducted Every Two Months
Deputies from the San Diego Sheriff’s Dept. conduct sweeps of the riverbed approximately every two months to locate illegal camp sites and tag them with eviction notices.“We give them notice that they are trespassing and allow them seven to 10 days to vacate and remove their property,” said Deputy Mark Snelling with the Community Oriented Policing Unit. “If they are present when the deputies are tagging the camp sites, we can cite them for illegal camping.”
When deputies return a few weeks after the initial sweep, anyone found living at the tagged camp sites can be arrested for trespassing.
“Sometimes they move and sometimes they don’t,” Snelling said.
43 Citations Issued in First Half of 2013
In the first six months of 2013, the sheriff’s deputies in Santee issued 43 citations for illegal camping.
After deputies have issued the illegal camping citations, the Santee City Attorney’s office pursues the charges by appearing in court to prosecute the illegal camping and related offenses.
“This enforcement mechanism is an effective way to address issues of local concern and is a vital part of an overall strategy to ensure the high quality of life enjoyed by Santee’s citizens,” said City Manager Keith Till. “We strive to address conditions detrimental to public health and safety by actively enforcing the municipal code though the criminal prosecution of code violations.”
In addition to prosecuting illegal camping citations, the city’s attorneys obtain “stay away” orders prohibiting transients and chronic campers from returning to the riverbed in Santee. Judges have the discretion to ban repeat offenders from re-establishing camp sites in same geographic area as a condition of suspending a fine or a jail sentence.
In addition to legal services, the city also incurs costs to have public service staffers clean up the camp sites in the riverbed after the transients have left.
“It’s very labor intensive, basically all hand work with pickup sticks and trash bags” said Public Services Supervisor Sam Rensberry, who cleans up the sites with help from another staff member.
“I can’t sugarcoat it. It’s hot, sweaty and disgusting,” Rensberry said. “The smell is terrible. There are ants, bugs, human waste and sometimes needles left behind.”
To comply with recent court rulings, the city takes any personal property left behind by illegal campers to the public services headquarters. If it is not claimed in 90 days, the property is thrown away.
Transient Population Difficult to Estimate
It’s difficult to estimate the number of people camping in the riverbed at any given time because the population is constantly in flux, said Deputy Snelling.
Volunteers with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless inspected Santee in January and tallied 18 people living unsheltered or in their cars. However, at least one local official estimated there may be 30 to 35 people illegally camping in the riparian area along the river.
A survey in April 2013 by the San Diego River Park Foundation identified 160 active encampments along 30 miles of the San Diego River from the El Capitan Reservoir to the Pacific Ocean.
Authorities say the population of illegal campers generally falls within three categories: Chronic homeless who do have local families or connections; transients who hopscotch from city to city; and alcoholics and drug addicts who can be as young as teenagers.
Most Do Not Have Violent History
“Most of the people camping in the river bottom have alcohol and drug dependency issues, but for the most part they do not have a violent history,” Snelling said. “There is a criminal element that lives out there, but it’s a minor percentage.”
Transients camping along the river are themselves at risk. They can be swept away by flash floods. Their living conditions are basically unsanitary. They are also vulnerable to being assaulted.
“There has been more violent crime committed against the homeless than they have perpetrated themselves,” Snelling said.
The San Diego River Park Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group, has been documenting the effects of homeless encampments along the San Diego River for more than a decade.
Rob Hutsel, the foundation’s founder and executive director, said the encampments have been found to be a “significant source” of pollution to the river. The foundation’s most recent survey estimated that transient camps along the river account for 35 percent of the trash sites and 71 percent of the trash volume by weight.
“Over the years, our volunteers have come across significant numbers of hypodermic needles, latrine sites and other public health issues, and numerous fires have been started where people are living along the river,” said Hutsel. “We want to get people the assistance they need so they aren’t living in this condition.”