Addressing Creekside Homelessness

One of my community engagement projects this semester involved learning about the homeless situation along Coyote Creek, a waterway that runs through the heart of San José, CA. “The Jungle” is one particular area infamous for being the largest homeless encampment in the continental United States. Our team was tasked with analyzing policy options to address the ecological impacts of encampments like these. Below is a slightly modified (and anonymized) version of our report, which can serve as a primer for anyone wanting to become better educated about these kinds of problems and their potential solutions.

A typical scene in “The Jungle”

Credit goes to my co-authors Annale Damabeh and Jean Reynolds for two-thirds of this work!

Executive Summary

With assistance from the non-profit organization Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, we learned about the serious environmental issues that stem from the presence of long-term creekside homeless encampments. We set out to understand the dynamics of the homeless situation in the San José area and find public policy options that could be applied to mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness on the creek ecosystem.

Through a deep literature review and interviews with eight key informants in the autumn of 2020, we were able to identify six concrete policy proposals that have been discussed and deployed to varying degrees along waterways in Northern California as well as across the United States. These policy ideas included installation of creekside sanitation facilities, incentives for trash collection, employment of the homeless in cleanup efforts, landscaping to deter encampments, abatements, and shelter reform.

Our conversations with community leaders revealed that each policy proposal had merits and flaws, with some common recurring themes such as the importance of consistent funding and coordination of execution between various agencies. Ultimately, we concluded that the long-term solution will likely require a mix of these ideas along with significant efforts to address the root causes of chronic homelessness such as drug addiction, mental illness, and the lack of affordable housing.

Problem Definition

Regional and statewide forces have been working for decades to address the growing issue of homelessness in California. Homelessness is a multifaceted phenomenon which can be examined through a multitude of lenses and holds physical, economic, social, political, and environmental implications. According to HUD, homelessness includes individuals and families who lack permanent nighttime residence. These individuals frequently occupy areas not meant for human habitation, often in locations that are difficult to access and out of sight. These settings include freeway off-ramps, sound walls, bridges, and recreational trails and parks. Access to water is a particularly important factor which homeless individuals take into consideration when choosing a location to camp. Consequently, homeless individuals often reside near, or along, waterways such as creeks.

When encampments are established near waterways, a plethora of ecological issues arise. Homeless individuals often dump their refuse in and around their campsites. In addition, they may use the watershed as a place to urinate and defecate. Feces and urine in the water can lead to high levels of E. Coli bacteria. If E. Coli levels rise above the federal threshold for safe recreational use, the waterways cannot be enjoyed by anyone in the surrounding community.

Homeless encampments can also negatively affect the environment due to their effects on nearby populations of fish. In addition to garbage that falls into the creek, residents also displace dirt into the creek through activities like digging. When trash and debris end up in the creek, it can disrupt the gravel where salmon lay their eggs.

Digging near these campsites also affects terrestrial species. As the encampment residents dig, they tend to damage or destroy various plants and trees. These plants and trees serve as habitats for a multitude of animals including lizards, salamanders, and rodents.

It’s clear that the environmental impacts of creekside homeless encampments can be severe, so the solutions must be timely and effective. Hence, this report will attempt to answer the policy question: How can we reduce the ecological impacts of homeless individuals camping along Coyote Creek?

Policy Options

Our research uncovered six policy options to explore. First, we’ll describe the basics of each one.

Installing FacilitiesTo prevent the dumping of garbage and human waste directly into sensitive ecological areas, local authorities could install trash receptacles and bathrooms near sites known to host recurring homeless encampments. These facilities would need to be maintained regularly, perhaps requiring staff to come by at least once a week for trash pickup and cleaning. (Pitzer 2019)
Cash for TrashLocal authorities could distribute specially marked garbage bags at permanent and semi-permanent encampments, requesting that homeless individuals contain their refuse and offering incentives for the return of these bags at specific locations. The incentives could range from monetary compensation to food vouchers to tickets for public transportation. (Devuono-powell 2013)
Hire the HomelessLocal authorities could begin a program where homeless individuals are recruited (i.e. on a daily basis or hourly rate) to participate in cleanup operations for encampments they are familiar with. This would be both a source of employment for the homeless and a source of labor for the local government. (EPA.gov 2011, Gomez 2019)
LandscapingCertain features of creekside sites are more appealing for homeless encampments than others. For example, vegetation overgrowth and hillside nooks provide homeless individuals with much-desired privacy and the ability to hide from the public and each other. Local authorities could reduce the appeal of creekside sites by actively removing vegetation cover, flattening ground, or even building public pedestrian pathways closer to the creek. This would discourage settling in these locations, causing homeless individuals to seek other accommodations. (Devuono-powell 2013)
Abatements / No Camping ZoneThe strictest (and usually default) approach is to conduct abatements, or evictions, on homeless encampments that have grown too large. This requires notifying the residents of encampments in advance, holding leftover possessions for reclamation for a required period, and significant cleanup efforts after the abatement. (AustinTexas.gov 2020)
Shelter ReformMost homeless individuals express strong disdain for shelters due to their heavy restrictions and limitations on their freedom. For example, most shelters do not allow pets and only take in individuals, which would require separation of families that many homeless people find unacceptable. Thus, invitations to shelters are typically only accepted in times of emergency (i.e. during a flood). Local authorities could reform the rules of local shelters to introduce kennels for pets or allow entrance by family members as a group, which should encourage usage of shelters as transitional housing. (Devuono-powell 2013)

Methodology

To better understand the problem space, we started by reviewing materials from our client (Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful) and conducting cursory internet searches for recent news articles about the homeless situation along Coyote Creek. Once we had a sense for the current conditions and the facet that our client was most concerned about (i.e. ecological impacts on the creek), we were able to focus our problem statement and proceed with further research.

We performed a thorough literature review by conducting internet (including Google Scholar) searches for material relating to homeless populations along creeks or rivers. We were able to find 6 academic publications, 2 documents from public projects currently in progress, and 6 articles from nonprofit/advocacy organizations and press. These works educated us on the broad range of mitigation measures that have been proposed and implemented across many jurisdictions in the United States and abroad, allowing us to compile the initial list of our policy options for consideration.

We did further research to identify local organizations and departments of government that might be involved with either homelessness or water management along Coyote Creek (e.g. the San José Homeless Response Team, Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing, Santa Clara Valley Water District, etc.) and passed this list to our client to check if they had any contacts within them. At the same time, we used organization websites and LinkedIn to find contact information for potential key informants and began reaching out via email. These informants will be referred to by their initials only.

We prepared an interview protocol (script) for use with all of them to keep our findings consistent and to ensure we remembered to inquire about all the dimensions we wanted to learn more about. We started by asking informants about their role and the degree to which they interacted with homeless individuals at Coyote Creek. Then, we would ask what ideas they had heard about to address the ecological issues to learn if there were any immediate preferences or best practices that we may not have been aware of. Following that, we would introduce each of the policy options we had identified from our literature review to get their open-ended thoughts on each one, including their thoughts on potential effectiveness and technical/political viability. We concluded by asking about their thoughts on long-term solutions to homelessness generally to get a better sense of whether current initiatives in the area were working at preventing the establishment of homeless encampments to begin with.

Findings

Installing Facilities

The installation of bathroom and waste facilities for homeless encampments is a commonly proposed idea. In fact, Oakland already does this to some extent and Fremont’s Direct Discharge Trash Control Program (City of Fremont 2018) was frequently cited as a successful model of this based on its highly targeted approach on the sites with the biggest waste issues.

Similarly, San José is currently planning to give $3M to contractors to strategically place bathrooms and dumpsters along Coyote Creek encampments. However, this project would only last until December 2020 and the plan would allow homeless encampments to continue near Coyote Creek.

This policy would be paid for via an increase in taxes, grant funding, as well as state and federal aid. Although no actual estimate of cost for this policy can be made now, it is safe to assume it will be costly. Dumpster and portable toilet rentals cost around $300 per day and $200 per day, respectively. A long-term implementation of this policy (i.e. beyond December) would be more beneficial but would cost far more.

Many of our informants voiced that access to sanitation and drinking water is a basic human right and supported providing these necessities. However, they recognized the costs of long-term implementation, noting that paying staff to maintain the facilities would be an ongoing expense above the equipment rentals. Related to maintenance, several of our interviewees mentioned how essential it was to keep such facilities clean given the public health risks of unsanitary conditions.

Cash for Trash

The idea of distributing and then offering incentives for returning garbage bags has gained momentum in cities across the United States over the past few years. For example, cities like Austin and Chattanooga are looking to launch programs in partnership with Mastercard’s “City Possible” program. Within Northern California, cities such as Palo Alto, Berkeley, Redwood City, and San Francisco have also piloted similar programs through the Downtown Streets Team organization.

San José piloted a version of this program in 2017 under the “BeautifySJ” initiative and announced that they were officially launching it in earnest as of November 12, 2020. (Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo 2020) In San José’s version of the program, they are distributing Cash for Trash bags at 40 locations (determined with input from Valley Water) and offering $4 per bag (maximum 5 bags or $20 per person) loaded onto a Mastercard debit card with only minor restrictions on purchases (i.e. no alcohol or tobacco).

Our informants expressed several doubts about the long-term efficacy of Cash for Trash, unfortunately. R.B. thought the idea could work in small jurisdictions but not larger ones and noted that a more comprehensive integrated workforce development program would be better. W.B. felt that the system could be easily abused, seeing as how homeless individuals could easily take trash from a public receptacle or dumpster nearby and turn it in. It would be much easier than cleaning up at a creekside encampment and nothing technically prevented people from using this loophole. W.B. also warned that cash itself would be too flexible and advocated for food vouchers or other indirect forms of financial assistance.

Hire the Homeless

The idea of employing the homeless to clean up trash was found to be the most promising method to mitigate the environmental impacts of encampments in a study from CSU Sacramento (Gomez 2019). A program to hire 40 homeless individuals to clean up areas along American River Parkways was launched in January 2019, partnering with a Roseville nonprofit called PRIDE Industries. The participants were selected by Sacramento County Health and Human Services and were paid $12 per hour, 24 hours per week for 10 weeks. A similar program called “There’s a Better Way” was launched in Albuquerque to hire homeless on a daily basis for landscape beautification projects. Both reported successful results in the short-term, but the long-term sustainability of these programs is unclear.

Our informants generally felt positive about this policy idea but noted several caveats that should be considered if a jurisdiction were to plan a program like this. Several folks noted the uncertainty about how labor laws would apply to this kind of employment. Cities would need to figure out what kinds of contracts would need to be signed, where liability would fall if someone became injured (workers compensation), whether the wages needed to be prevailing or at least a living wage, etc. M.B., R.B., and W.B. all noted that a living wage is necessary if a goal of the program would be to ultimately uplift individuals out of their homeless situation.

M.G. pointed out that such an effort would need to be sustained (like any of the policy options), suggesting that a recruited brigade would need to work for at least 3 weeks straight to properly clean an area thoroughly. W.B. agreed that long-term support would be necessary and noted that the potential relationships between hired individuals and others living in the homeless encampments would help make the job easier. Like Cash for Trash, W.B. also recommended that payments be not directly in cash (i.e. food vouchers or bill pay services instead).

Landscaping

Landscaping was generally received as a potentially successful and positive recommendation. R.B. suggested that using landscaping to deter homeless individuals from camping might be problematic due to state and federal regulations. Often when solutions like this are proposed, a collaboration is necessary between four or five governmental bodies including but not limited to the Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Water Control Board, Army Corp of Engineers, California Coastal Commission, etc. Additionally, solutions that physically modify the waterways would require stormwater permits that are cumbersome to obtain.

Some have suggested that removal of trees, brush, and other forms of vegetation might discourage homeless individuals from settling. M.C. disagreed, stating that this does not prevent camping nor deter homeless individuals. On the other hand, W.B. stated that removing brush does sometimes work and can also prevent the spread of wildfires. Unfortunately, there may be unintended negative consequences of removing too much brush, as its cover maintains the water temperature for fish and other wildlife.

W.B. also stated that landscaping efforts such as fencing have succeeded in keeping homeless individuals out of certain areas. However, the fencing must be sturdy (i.e. made of wrought iron as opposed to chain link), which would be more expensive. Organizations such as Caltrans have stated that they lack funding to implement these types of projects in large areas.

Basic investments in creating more surrounding community programming may also deter homeless individuals from camping. For example, W.B. suggested that if there was a community garden that is well-maintained and visited often, it may deter encampments from forming due to the increased presence of people and good lighting.

Abatements and No Camping Zones

At first glance, abatements and no camping zones seem like an obvious solution to address homeless encampments. However, despite “no trespassing” signs along the creek in addition to various forms of fencing, homeless individuals continue to camp near Coyote Creek. Also, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations and government entities have temporarily suspended abatements.

M.Y. stated that station park rangers do what they can to discourage camping. M.G. was firmly against abatements of homeless encampments, noting that they may even be unconstitutional based on the court case Martin v. Boise (Los Angeles Times 2019) which established that it is “unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping on the sidewalk when there aren’t enough shelter beds or housing available as an alternative.”

Most government employees who have worked closely with homeless individuals and abatements echoed what was said by R.B.: abatements are essentially just moving homeless individuals from one location to another. In emergency situations, such as when a creek bank collapses due to erosion or a storm, this may be the appropriate solution. However, abatements do not solve the underlying issues that result in homelessness and encampments in the first place.

W.B. discussed the positive benefits of abatements, noting how critical they were in keeping encampments from becoming too entrenched over time. However, he agreed that enforcement just addresses the ecological aspects and does little to uplift homeless individuals out of their situation. One promising suggestion would be to encourage collaboration between organizations that do abatements and those that provide social services such as case workers and shelter referrals.

Finally, abatements are expensive and time-consuming. Our informants often noted that their jurisdictions lacked the funds, resources, and staff members to abate frequently. This begs the question of how effective the cyclical process of abatements really is, and whether it is the best use of limited funds to both prevent environmental degradation and provide support for homeless individuals.

Shelter Reform

The most common solution that came up in conversations was to provide more homeless shelters or ideally more long-term affordable housing. It was commonly expressed that it was unfair to remove encampments without offering a housing alternative. It may also be in the best interest of the homeless to seek out shelters as living in encampments can be dangerous. S.L. expressed concern for the homeless located in the Yolo bypass along the I-80 highway. This bypass is notorious for flash flooding which presents a severe risk to those living in encampments in the area.

To make homeless shelters a viable option, it is important to address why the homeless would choose the streets over the shelters today. Most shelters currently do not allow pets or admit large groups of people, which turns off many homeless individuals who cohabitate with their dogs or as a multigenerational family. These individuals would rather live in creekside encampments with their loved ones than apart in shelters. Another barrier to shelter living is the fear of theft since most shelters do not have lockers for personal belongings. Many shelters also close during the day, forcing residents outside at inconvenient times. It can also be a hassle to travel to a shelter as homeless individuals usually do not own their own vehicles and shelters may not be within walking distance. Finally, shelters may only extend invitations right before an impending disaster (such as flooding).

Shelter capacity is also an ongoing concern. R.B. noted that doubling shelter capacity was a part of his organization’s plan to limit the amount of homeless people living on the streets and along waterways. Until then, there are residents that might wish to stay at shelters but cannot due to lack of space.

Mental illness and drug addiction may also play a role in an individual’s willingness to go into a shelter. For example, those with schizophrenia have a fear of large crowds and paranoia about others, which is often triggered in a shelter setting. Those with substance addictions would rather live along a creek than go into a shelter that does not allow drug use. Reforming shelter policy could improve intake rates and reduce the occurrence of creekside encampments, but this policy would be more effective if paired with outreach programs that address the destabilizing conditions of mental illness and substance abuse.

Conclusions

There were a couple of common themes that came up as our informants discussed each of the policy options. First and foremost, funding is clearly a major issue for any of these proposals. Even though each individual policy would have a different up-front cost, they can all become prohibitively expensive if run for an extended period. Many interviewees expressed the importance of long-term commitment and secure funding to make the policies sustainable.

Another common hindrance to implementation of these policies is a lack of coordination between the many agencies that work around homeless encampments. Each of these organizations have different scopes of jurisdiction so it is difficult to designate clear roles and align on best practices. As an illustration of the problem, a water district may conduct an abatement that pushes a homeless community onto a nearby highway, where Caltrans is left to apply their own policies that may push them right back onto the waterway. A truly effective solution needs to begin with alignment between all these parties. Contra Costa County’s draft Homeless Encampment Protocol (Contra Costa Health Housing & Homeless 2018) designed to standardize abatement procedures between different agencies is a good start.

Another important recurring theme in our conversations was the need to balance between the effectiveness of a solution and the potential humanitarian concerns. For example, abatements were clearly the most effective way to immediately stop ecological harm – but they were also seen as the solution that was the least compassionate and provided no dignity to those experiencing homelessness. For this reason, informants like M.B. did not want to accept abatements as any part of the solution. W.B. noted that the ecological issue does take a backseat to the social situation, but expressed that without abatements, the homeless encampments only become more entrenched over time and become overwhelming for small agencies to address.

It is evident that homelessness is a multifarious phenomenon and varies from case to case. Analyzing the evidence raises an important question: do any of these solutions address the underlying issues plaguing those who are experiencing homelessness? Millions of dollars are spent yearly on abatements and other mitigation measures, yet we continue to see homelessness rise at alarming rates. Although there is an urgent call to address the ecological issues affecting our waterways, the consensus seems to be that a successful long-term strategy must be a multi-pronged effort that includes efforts to address the circumstances that lead to homelessness to begin with: a lack of affordable housing, mental illnesses, and drug addiction.

Hence, programs like abatements must be paired with outreach services to offer alternative shelter arrangements, mental health or drug addiction services, and leniency when it is known that homeless individuals have case workers they are actively engaging with. Coordination of efforts like this is how we can finally break the cycle of homelessness and thus ultimately halt the ecological damage that comes from creekside encampments and ensure the future vitality of Coyote Creek.

References

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