Homelessness Along Rivers & Creeks

This article from California Planning & Development Report is a classic example of the inability of dealing effectively with illegal camping by the homeless—and the huge environmental degradation resulting—along rivers and creeks in San Jose, even with the presence of clear laws and regulations giving authority to do so.

Unfortunately, this confusion and inability is also replicated in Sacramento, where large-scale camping in the Parkway, after a serious effort to clean it up a couple of years ago appears to have fizzled out and the situation seems to be settling in at pre-clean up levels once again.

An excerpt from the story.

The big camp on Coyote Creek north of Story Road in San Jose is familiar to Sandy Perry and Pastor Scott Wagers, leaders of an activist ministry known as CHAM. But during the past couple of years they have been amazed to see people pour into the place from elsewhere in the city — some of them evicted from an embarrassingly visible camp near the airport. What was a mere few tents now fills a broad open space on the creekside below Story Road and continues along the west bank of the creek. Tents are pitched every few yards, many in tiny courtyards fenced with sheets, tarps and pallets.

Repeatedly demolished and rebuilt, the place has become known to its residents and the public under a name with jarring historical resonances: the “Jungle” — though the city’s homelessness response manager, Ray Bramson, refers to it firmly as “the Story Road encampment.” Population estimates run from 200 people upward. News reports, some of them lurid, have called it the largest unofficial encampment in the United States. The camp seems physically tidier than some reports suggest but the lack of formally organized sanitation is evident. Social tensions were running high during a visit, in part due to rumors of an imminent eviction sweep that turned out, this particular time, to be false. The city has announced plans eventually to house some creekside campers using vouchers and to empty the “Story Road encampment” of habitation. And yet Perry said in mid-May the current population was higher than he’d ever seen it.

And that camp is only the largest of an estimated 66 encampments on the city’s waterways, housing at least 1230 people as of a January 2013 count.

These encampments are at the center of a slow collision. Strong civic and legal pressures to reduce pollution of the city’s waterways are up against equally strong civic and legal pressures to house or otherwise manage the city’s exceptionally large population of homeless people who live, not in shelters, but literally outdoors. Adding to these pressures is San Jose’s civic effort to maintain a public image as a prosperous place and to promote its urban streams as safe, pleasant sites for recreation and nature study, which reduces the number of places campers can go.

A glance at a terrain map (see http://goo.gl/maps/EXPPw) shows why San Jose shares in California’s old tradition of creekside encampments by marginalized people, and why civic planners could have reasons to wish otherwise. As Bramson says, the city has two “large riparian corridors and moderate temperatures,” hence lends itself to camping. (Mostly moderate, that is. Three people died of exposure in the city during last December’s cold snap. http://bit.ly/1d6G0kk ) Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River (and, less extensively, Los Gatos Creek) run for miles through suburban and urban neighborhoods, broadening frequently into parks. The waterways are logical choices for hidden campsites. They are also a logical focus for civic efforts to build a denser, more prosperous urban core.

For story link, go to http://www.cp-dr.com/ and scroll down to “Hydraulics of Homelessness” May 28, 2014.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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