In the canyon separating Washington Street and the 163 onramp in University Heights, a trail leads down to an intricate homeless encampment. The camp is small and well organized. On one side of the twenty-foot site, a tarp is stretched tightly between two trees, providing shelter big enough for one, maybe two people. Underneath there are sleeping bags and blankets folded on the ground and just outside, there is an old pair of jeans and an extra large sweatshirt draped over a couple of thin tree limbs. On the opposite side of the camp, next to the makeshift clothesline, a bicycle tire lays on top of a neatly kept pile of trash.
The residents of University Heights are upset about the number of illegal homeless encampments in the canyons below. At the neighborhood crime watch meeting held on May 1st, at Birney Elementary School off of Meade and Campus streets, the residents voiced their objections to the growing presence of homeless activity in their neighborhoods. Some residents fussed over the number of homeless encampments underneath the Vermont Street walking bridge and in the canyons around Texas Street, while others complained about homeless people rummaging through their recyclables for aluminum cans and glass bottles.
According to Greg Sorini, President of the University Heights Community Association, the problem is not new. “I see trash everywhere and people going down in to the canyons everyday when we’re walking our dogs or when I’m driving home from work. The people in the neighborhood have always been concerned about it, but most of the time their concerns have come in the form of complaints to other residents. If I see something going on there, or trash in the canyons I call the non-emergency number and I don’t think enough residents are doing that.”
Officer Surwilo, of the San Diego Police Department heard the complaints from the concerned citizens. According to the officer the problem is not new, “Some of these camps are crazy. I’ve seen some where they’ve spliced into the power lines and run power down to televisions inside the camps. Most of these people don’t want rules and they don’t want to give up their life of ease either. A lot of times they collect bottles and cans from your recyclables to buy booze or meth and go back down into the camps to drink or use.”
The officer warned University Heights residents to not approach the campers, let alone, go down into the camps to clean up the trash, “I advise people to call us if they have witnessed any homeless activity in these canyons and urge that no one go down in to the camps or approach these people on their own. I’ve seen many instances of residents approaching them and fights breaking out. Call us and we’ll get over as fast as we can.”
Sorini attests to the quick response time by the police, “I called once on the camps underneath the Vermont Street walking bridge and two cop cars and a helicopter were there within seven minutes. The problem is not that the cops don’t come, it’s that not enough of the community members are actively reporting the incidents.”
In the University Heights monthly newsletter, citizens are urged to call the San Diego Police Department’s non-emergency number when they see any homeless activity in the neighborhood. The number to call is 619-531-2000. In addition, they are also asked to call Paige Hazard, the Neighborhood Prosecutor for the San Diego City’s Attorney’s office at 619-533-5844 for stay-away orders or to find help for the homeless living in the camps. More help can be found on the following websites: The Automated Regional Justice System: arjis.org; the SDPD's Homeless Outreach Team: sandiego.gov/homeless-services; and finally the SDPD: sandiego.gov/police.