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San Diego focusing on homeless camps along river following hepatitis A outbreak

City officials have recently turned their attention to the homeless encampments along the San Diego River in combating the ongoing hepatitis A outbreak that has killed 20 people and afflicted 536.

Health official have said the contagious liver disease is being passed from person to person through fecal contamination, and that homeless people and illicit drug users have been those primarily impacted.

Following a law enforcement crackdown in September on those living on the streets in the East Village, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office announced efforts to clean up debris from homeless encampments along the river.

City officials said two clean-up efforts have taken place around Qualcomm Stadium, with more to come. The police department’s homeless outreach teams have also focused their efforts in recent months along the river, offering hepatitis vaccinations and access to shelter services.

“Our crews will continue to make progress cleaning the city’s portion of the San Diego Riverbed,” said Mario Sierra, director of the environmental services department. “Many areas are challenging because of topography, vegetation and access, but we must do what we can to ensure the river is as free from debris and trash as possible.”

Last week, Mike McCraken, 62, gathered up his possessions, preparing to move his four-month-old encampment. He was among those who recently received notices to vacate the area.

He said a park ranger had posted the notice, giving him and his friends 72 hours to move or have their belongs confiscated.

“You move, and then they’ll come and tag your tent again,” he said. “I asked [a police officer] for advice about where I should go since I’m homeless and stuff, and he said, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

Another man living on the river who identified himself only as “Rabbit” said that people have flocked to the area because of the crackdown on the homeless in downtown San Diego.

“We’re getting over populated down here,” he said. But the 27-year-old added that evicting people won’t solve the larger problem.

“It makes no sense trying to move everyone around,” he said. “All it does is stir the pot.”

The San Diego River Park Foundation found that camps along the river nearly doubled in the past year.

The small nonprofit, which is dedicated to restoring the river, counted 116 encampments in October, up from 61 in the same month in 2016. This year’s total was by far the highest since the group started keeping records nearly a decade ago.

“Right now, there’s just a Band-Aid on the situation,” said Tiffany Swiderski, a staff member with the foundation. “It takes more of a coordinated effort and more of a partnership between us and the city and the land managers and all the different stakeholders in the area. You can’t just do one thing and walk away from it.”

Swiderski and others with the foundation, including a handful of volunteers, were out last week conducting their regular assessment of trash along the river. The group surveys the watershed from the ocean all the way to Santee.

Walking along a series of trails behind the YMCA in Mission Valley, foundation employee Benjamin Downing documented the precise location of trash and encampments using GPS.

“Ultimately, we’re hoping to have a system of trails that span from the mountains to the ocean,” he said of the foundation’s long-term vision. “As we start to develop this system of trails and open spaces, it will encourage people to use them and the presence of people will mitigate some of the problems.”

A homeless woman pulling a cart walked by Downing and the group. The trolley rumbled overhead on elevated tracks. Needles and bottles of oxycodone were scattered on the ground, as were old clothes, coolers, plastic jars and boxes of dog biscuits.

In response to the hepatitis outbreak, the foundation has scaled back its larger clean-up efforts, but it still conducts weekly abatement activities with staff and a core group of vaccinated volunteers.

Downing will share his data with the Metropolitan Transit System, which owns this particular section of land and routinely conducts its own debris clearing operations. The foundation has a cooperative agreement with the agency allowing its members to operate in the area.

San Diego City Council members Lorie Zapf and David Alvarez on Monday plan to propose using the former San Diego Chargers training facility on Murphy Canyon Road as a temporary housing for the homeless people living on the river. In addition to other environmental and safety issues, there is concern about the rising river and flooding of homeless encampments with the rainy season approaching.

Despite all the challenges, the river park foundation has made a significant difference on certain sections of the river, Swiderski said.

“A long time ago, Mission Valley Preserve was awful,” she said. “So much trash, just the stuff of legends. Then over time through a coordinated effort of working on enforcement and cleaning the area up, Mission Valley Preserve overall is looking great now.”

Minutes later, she ducked through a tunnel of bushes to find 69-year-old Daniel Potet sleeping on a dirty blanket under a beach umbrella. His small dog barked at her approach and the homeless man, frazzled, slowly pulled on his pants.

It’s a common encounter for foundation staff, who say they do their best to make friends with the homeless living on the river.

Potet said he found the spot about a week ago after being chased by police out of another camp near the river. “I travel up and down the river.”

joshua.smith@sduniontribune.com

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