They make their home by the San Diego River

Down and out in Mission Valley

Firefighters under I-5 bridge. "Not only do the homeless fill it with debris, but the taggers leave their cans around and the paint goes into the river."
  • Firefighters under I-5 bridge. "Not only do the homeless fill it with debris, but the taggers leave their cans around and the paint goes into the river."

We heard him screaming even before he broke out of the underbrush, crashing through the giant reeds on either side of the narrow path. The sun had just set, and the riverbed area was no place to be after dark.

“Get outta here! Get outta here!”

"Next thing you’ve got a palm tree burning and all the brush burning and the fire department has to respond and they have to drag the hoses all the way in."

"Next thing you’ve got a palm tree burning and all the brush burning and the fire department has to respond and they have to drag the hoses all the way in."

Then he was upon us: big and burly in ragged jeans and an orange T-shirt, a thick black beard and a short prison haircut, a scarred face that had either seen a lot of fights or had passed through a windshield. He rushed toward my friend, Rex, raising a rusted paint can like a grenade, stopping about two feet away. I was six feet behind.

“You come back here again I’m going to take your fuckin’ life, dude! Get outta here or I’m going to kill you!”

Jeff Viator. What struck me as somewhat peculiar is that Viator said he had never seen the police and the police said they had never seen Viator.

Jeff Viator. What struck me as somewhat peculiar is that Viator said he had never seen the police and the police said they had never seen Viator.

We made placating noises and backed away as he kept screaming and waving his fist. It seemed at any moment he would charge. As far as I could see we had done nothing to upset him and so his actions appeared entirely irrational, which meant we couldn’t anticipate what he might do next. Then the man abruptly turned and stomped back into the underbrush, still shouting. With some haste we returned to the Morena Boulevard bridge over the San Diego River and climbed up through the rocks, mud and plant life to Hotel Circle North and Rex’s yellow Ford Mustang.

San Diego River. The Mission Valley Preserve is one of the most beautiful areas in San Diego. It also is one of the ugliest.

San Diego River. The Mission Valley Preserve is one of the most beautiful areas in San Diego. It also is one of the ugliest.

Fifteen minutes earlier the man had been friendly, moderately. Our last exchange had been when he had told me to buy him a sandwich, bring it back and leave it on the trail so he could find it later, then we had heard him storming through the brush shouting to himself.

The river has largemouth bass and green sunfish, as well as shopping carts and Styrofoam containers.

The river has largemouth bass and green sunfish, as well as shopping carts and Styrofoam containers.

This was the Mission Valley Preserve, about ten acres along the San Diego River bordered by the Sefton Park Little League field in the east to Interstate 5 in the west, then from Friars Road in the north to Interstate 8 in the south. The Coaster, trolley and Morena Boulevard bridges cross overhead, as well as the two interstate bridges. The preserve is packed with vegetation — a variety of giant reed called Arundo donax (often confused with bamboo), swamp grass, bulrushes, cattails, young willows, Mexican elderberry, coast live oaks and cottonwood trees, palms, castor bean, Brazilian pepper trees, salt cedar, fennel, ice plant and much more, so much in fact that at times you can only see two feet ahead. In addition, there is a network of crisscrossing paths as complicated as the cracks on a Chinese porcelain vase.

We had first seen our murderous friend scrounging through a mound of debris from a recently abandoned camp looking for bedding. Already he had found a purple sheet, a gray blanket and a piece of foam rubber. The camp was on the ruins of another camp that seemed to be on the ruins of still another so that the bottom layer — cardboard, newspapers, mattresses and old clothes was slowly turning back to compost.

“Caltrans took my stuff and sleeping bag,” he told us. “I’ve only been away two hours. I don’t live here or nothing. I’ve only been here a couple of days. I’m just passing through.” Even then he was excitable and he kept mumbling to himself between the sentences he threw in our direction. “You got to talk about Caltrans taking the possessions of homeless people and throwing it out as junk. I got to get me up in Orange County on Tuesday and see my father. It’ll be my birthday [February 6th]. I’ll be 38.” Then he ripped a blanket off a branch, which had served someone as a wall, and headed down the trail. When he walked, he lifted his boots high, as if he were marching.

When Rex and I had met him for that last time, we had been looking for a naked man, or nearly naked, who we had come upon a little earlier walking gingerly through the Arundo donax. It seems that one often has peculiar encounters in the riverbed area. This naked man had been wearing only a jockstrap with a leopard skin pattern — a tall, blond man in his 30s, with bright blue eyes. He was carrying a folded pile of clothes. The word “startled” does not quite express exactly how startled we felt.

“Hey,” Rex had said.

The man turned right, broke through the brush and disappeared. We backed away. Although he had appeared dry, it seemed possible that he might have been bathing in the river — a counterproductive enterprise it would seem given the color of the water. Or he might have been returning from an assignation. Earlier still Rex and I had stumbled upon a homeless couple in a small tent wrapped in an embrace. Or the man might simply have been a nature lover, but the path was muddy, full of sharp sticks and the Arundo was prickly.

We had continued down the path discussing the oddity of the leopard skin jockstrap. Then, turning another corner, we came upon the man once again walking toward us. This second appearance was so unexpected that my first thought was that this was the other man’s twin brother. However, the leopard skin jockstrap was a tip-off. Without pausing to chat, he once more leapt into the undergrowth.

“Hey,” said Rex, “it’s okay.” But the man was no more than a distant crackling.

Again we had made our way through the Arundo and shortly we met our murderous friend gathering blankets.

“Did you just see a naked man?” Rex had asked.

In retrospect this was probably the wrong thing to say.

“I’m not scared of any fuckin’ naked man,” our friend had said.

We chitchatted a bit as already described and passed on. A minute later Rex had found a worn black wallet lying in the path. Inside was a driver’s license, a speeding ticket, three check-cashing cards and miscellaneous documents, two fifty-dollar bills and some other smaller bills. The picture on the license showed a blond, blue-eyed man in his 30s who vaguely resembled the man on the path, but lacked his deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression. His name was Robert. So we had bushwhacked back our way into the undergrowth and maze of paths to look for the naked man — hoping he had put on a few clothes — and to see if he was Robert. In the next ten minutes we found four hidden camps and had heard the shouting of our murderous friend, but we saw no blond, blue-eyed man, naked or dressed.

“I’m going to kill you, man! You come back here again you’re dead meat!”

Well, that put an end to our search. I took the wallet to the Western Division Police Headquarters at the corner of Napa and Friars roads on the edge of the preserve where I explained to a young woman officer what had happened. She looked at me skeptically. Fortunately, I had already talked to half a dozen police officers in the station while doing this story and so I could drop a few names.

Oddly, Robert’s driver’s license showed that his birthday would be the next day, February 4, 2001. He would be 37. He was a year and two days younger than the other man. Perhaps less of a coincidence was the fact that my own birthday was two weeks further on. I would be 60. But it made me think of my good fortune compared to theirs. At least I wasn’t living in the riverbed. I wasn’t homeless.

The Mission Valley Preserve is one of the most beautiful areas in San Diego. It also is one of the ugliest and that is part of the problem. It has native plants, like the cottonwoods and willows; and invasive exotics like the Arundo donax, salt cedar and palms. It has giant blue heron, Least Bell’s vireos, yellow warblers and feral cats and stray dogs. The river has largemouth bass and green sunfish, as well as shopping carts and Styrofoam containers.

Historically, it supplied water to the first mission in 1769 and irrigated the crops of the first settlers. At times the riverbed area is home to more than 100 homeless people. The five bridges that span the river within the preserve afford cavernous arches and walls that serve as canvases for dozens of taggers. Hundreds of empty spray cans litter the area, but form a fraction of the debris. In their massive trash pickups the city’s Environmental Services crews have taken out up to 100 tons of debris. And it doesn’t take long for the trash to build up again.

I knew none of this when I first visited the riverbed two weeks before meeting the fellow who threatened to kill us. Rex had told me that over 100 homeless people lived down there and they had a mayor. He said that a man he knew had had his bike stolen so the man got some friends, went down to the riverbed, wrecked some shacks and a little later the mayor and a bunch of other homeless men wheeled the bicycle up the hill and apologized. I thought it would be interesting to talk to the mayor.

On that first day Rex had parked his yellow Mustang on Hotel Circle North and we made our way over a pile of rocks and down the hill. Almost immediately a small, dark, ragged man came hurrying toward us out of the brush waving a machete. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he shouted. “I got to put a handle on this here machete.”

His name was Petey and he had lived in the riverbed for 20 years. “It’s a nice place. No trouble.” He was in his mid-40s and uniformly gray, as if he had been dipped in something nasty. He told us that that morning 30 “Mexican kids” had come down looking for a chrome bike, which had been stolen. “I sure didn’t want to get my ass beat,” he added. “I didn’t take it, I know that much.”

We asked about the mayor.

“Is he a big guy?” asked Petey. “About six feet six? We used to have a mayor but his legs got all inflated. He’s in a hospital up in North County. They’re going to have to cut them off.” All this time he was edging by us. “I gotta go, I gotta go. I gotta get myself a handle.” He gave a friendly wave of his machete and disappeared.

Minutes later we met a woman in her late 40s who was in an even greater hurry. She said she couldn’t talk, because she was looking for her boyfriend who she hadn’t seen for three days. She waved vaguely toward the bridges and told us to go see a red genii. Then she trotted away.

Soon we saw a large blue tarp stretched between several trees set back from one of the small streams running into the river. As we approached two dogs charged out at us barking and carrying on: a pit bull and a black lab. Voices shouted out from the shelter: “They’re friendly! They’re friendly!” The dogs did their best to deny that but at least they didn’t bite us. Under the tarp were two couples, one perhaps in their 20s, the other in their 50s. They had a single Arizona tea bottle that they were passing among them. Each person was holding a puppy. Two more puppies were rolling on the ground. The two couples gave us suspicious looks and did not look conversational.

Rex and I wandered around for another half hour and met no more people, though we saw at least a dozen camps where people were living. About every ten feet along the path was another path and about every ten feet along that was still another, as if the whole thing was a massive drawing of the central nervous system. And because of the density of the underbrush we probably saw less than 10 percent of what there was to be seen. We also saw the debris of perhaps 20 former camps — great piles of old mattresses, cardboard, Styrofoam containers, cans, bottles, plastic jugs, moldy blankets, sheets of plastic, bicycle parts of every description, newspapers, magazines and books.

The bridges afforded at least 12 great walls for the taggers. Some had left quick scrawls, others elaborate multicolored names. Lunek and Certs had been particularly active. On one wall was a red genii at least 20 feet tall, which is what the homeless woman had described to us. Next to the genii were painted the words “The Medow in the Getto,” which is just one of the names for the riverbed area, another being 5200 Friars Road, which I will get to shortly. However, we could also count four levels of gray paint, showing that previous graffiti had been effectively painted over.

On the way out we came upon a vacant camp belonging to Stephen H. It was hard to say if it was deserted or if he was coming back. There was a court notice mandating him to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, deposit slips from a bank in Phoenix, a picture of a pretty blond girl of about 12 and a note to remember her birthday in February, a work schedule for some dishwashing job with some days X’ed out and others circled, a half dozen poems written on scraps of paper on the moon and solitude, on depression and the beauty of plants, and several science fiction paperbacks.

Rex and I climbed the hill onto Friars Road. Across from the Napa Street trolley station and the Western Division Police Headquarters was a kiosk with information on the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve, nature walks, conservation projects, plantings of native trees, removal of invasive weeds, trash cleanups and other projects. I thought of the debris I had just seen and the number of encampments. Good luck, I thought.

The seeds of the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve were planted back in 1996 by three officers from the Western Division: Patrick Vinson, Teresa Kinney and Robb McCracken who worked under Sgt. Robert Gilbert, the officer in charge of the riverbed area, though because of other duties the area could only receive a small part of their attention. At the beginning of 1996 the riverbed was in fact a sort of city for the homeless with tree houses, tents and two-story structures made from lumber and Arundo.

Suspended beneath the interstate bridges were highway crew inspection hatches, spaces like small apartments where six or seven people could live. There were no routine police patrols and only occasional sweeps when people would be cited for illegal lodging and those with outstanding warrants would be arrested. The next day many who had been forced out would be back again. At times Environmental Services (the agency responsible for waste management) would accompany a police sweep, but their workers could only carry away a fraction of the debris. Crime in the area was increasing. Despite the lack of routine patrols, in a two-year period between July, 1994, and July, 1996, the police made nearly 100 arrests and gave nearly 150 criminal citations.

“The problem was that a lot of folks down there were crooks,” Vinson told me. “There were small-time drug dealers and mentally unstable people.” Vinson, now a sergeant, had been stationed at Western Division for 15 years. He is 39 years old, with short red hair, a red mustache and glasses. I talked to him in the Western Division parking lot. “The area provides concealment and it’s a good area if you’re a crook — there’re lots of stores nearby, lots of places to rob. Some of the folks would take copper wire from construction sites and burn off the insulation with gasoline. Then the fires would spread and the fire department would have to drag their hoses down there. The area was a mess. Not only do the homeless fill it with debris, but the taggers leave their cans around and the paint goes into the river. And it was full of stolen property.

There was a guy called Bicycle Terry who had one whole wall of his dwelling made entirely of bikes. It was taller than a person. Another guy made a dock with quality lumber and a barge out of a garage door and barrels. We’d go down there and make arrests, give citations, conduct field interviews of people suspected of illegal activity. Folks would be given court dates and never show up. But really the police went down only a couple of times a year. And that’s a historic area. If it were cleaned up, we could see how things were 250 years ago, what the plants were, what the animals were. You can see how San Diego was when people first came here. Richard Henry Dana who wrote Two Years Before the Mastspent time here [in 1835]. That was where he collected firewood.

“Well, the crime, the destruction of the environment, the increasing number of homeless people, the fires — it was going on all the time and it was getting worse. We asked ourselves what we could change about this. So we went up to the University of San Diego and talked to Professor Michael Mayer in the biology department to see if the area was worth saving. He started educating us about the plant environment and how the non-native plants were pushing out the native stuff. It turned out that he already had an interest in the area. And that led to other people with an interest in the area. It seemed a lot of people were thinking of the same thing at the same time. I mean, we thought it would make a really nice nature preserve and when we went up to talk to Mayer, he turned out to be thinking the same thing. It wasn’t just one person who began it.”

Before meeting with Mayer, Officers Vinson, Kinney and McCracken had conducted a cleanup and sweep with Environmental Services code compliance officers in June, 1996. One hundred tons of trash were taken out and another three tons were taken out each week thereafter. Arrests were made and social workers talked to the homeless offering them help. However, it was clear to the police and Environmental Services officers that other solutions were necessary and so they began to discuss the possibility of some kind of park.

“I’m a history buff,” Vinson told me, “and at the beginning I mostly focused on the historical aspects of San Diego River, because that’s my main interest.”

Vinson is very modest in describing his role in the project, insisting that it was a group effort. One day I talked to Vinson’s supervisor at the time, Sgt. Robert Gilbert, a tall man in his 40s who is so big that he could probably take a pair of crooks in each hand and play them like castanets. He told me that it was Pat Vinson who first identified the problem and tried to define the solution. Then he developed it into a pop Project — Problem Oriented Policing — which are projects developed in police departments all over the country. The Mission Valley Preserve project received a prize for runner-up as one of the best projects of the year.

“Pat initiated it,” Gilbert told me. “Robb and Teresa did a lot of work, but Pat put in all the legwork outside the department. He did a lot of things on his off time. It’s one of the reasons he was promoted sergeant. It’s just the kind of guy he is. He spearheaded this, but he’s a very modest man. He wouldn’t take credit for it. He hates to get up before a bunch of people, but he started it.”

Vinson, Kinney and McCracken had to find out who cared about the area — who were the stakeholders. That’s when they went to Dr. Michael Mayer.

“Pat Vinson and Robb McCracken just showed up at my office,” Mayer told me, “two uniformed policemen just standing outside the door. They wanted to talk to me about something. I said, Oh, come on in. And they started talking about their interest in the creek area down here and how interested I was in the ecology or the botany of the area. They thought they could do their policing job better if the place was taken care of better and if people were able to enjoy it and go down there more. They also had the idea that if we removed exotic plants there would be less room for homeless people to hide and folks to do illegal activities — particularly remove the Arundo donax. And so I said yeah that’s a non-native and it would be great to get it out of there. So it kind of started from there.

"They thought they could put together a pretty interesting idea that would have historical appeal, have environmental and botanical appeal, would have recreation appeal, and have a crime-prevention appeal as well. And I thought it was wonderful, because it is a resource that’s right here at the foot of our hill and we’ve taken students down there and it would be even more wonderful to take them down there without fear and show not only the wildlife and plant life of the area, but also be able to talk about ecological issues involving restoration, exotic versus native plants, habitat degradation and such. So frankly when they said are you interested in this, I said well sure, because it’s a pretty good slice of riparian habitat and, yeah, I’ll help in whatever way I can.”

Oh, yes, and what is 5200 Friars Road? About this time the Police Department Crime Analysis Unit decided that in order to overcome data problems when making arrests in the riverbed area, the river needed an address. Consequently, 5200 Friars Road was chosen — ten acres of riparian habitat with a street address.

After talking to Mayer, the three police officers went to Valerie Stallings, the councilwoman for the area, and were invited to give a presentation of their analysis and research at a meeting of her River Task Force in July, 1996, which was made up of prior members and people brought in by Vinson. They included Mayer, representatives of Environmental Services, park rangers from the Department of Park and Recreation and Marilyn Mirrasoul, an aide to Valerie Stallings.

“The task force got together,” Mirrasoul told me “and originally they were looking at the issues of the homeless and crime in the area and how to deal with it because in the past what had happened was that the police and the city had gone down there and had done big cleanups and then they would just have to start all over again. And Valerie didn’t want to see it just go on like that and then a little later you’d go back and have to take out another 100 tons, plus having all that crime going on. And then when Valerie was down there she said, ‘Well this is really an incredible resource. Let’s see what we can do with it. Let’s see if we can turn it into a park for the community.’ ”

Ten days later was an even bigger meeting which included the Metropolitan Transit District Board (which runs the trolley), U.S. Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Game, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the city attorney, the city’s director of real estate assets, the Salvation Army, Homeless Services, Mental Health Services, and all who had been at the previous meeting.

There were a lot of questions and a lot of disagreement. Who owned the land? Who would pay for the development? How would the public be involved? And it was complicated. The five bridges belong to four separate agencies — Caltrans, the city, mtdb (the trolley), and the Coaster — and each removes its own graffiti. Caltrans spends $20,000 a week throughout the state to remove graffiti from its bridges. And there were conflicting aims and regulations. Let’s clear out the underbrush, said the police. You can’t remove the native plants, said Environmental Services. Let’s build paths, said Park and Rec. You can’t build on a floodplain, said the Army Corps of Engineers.

“An area like that is supposed to flood out,” said Vinson. “It’s an environmental floodplain, so nobody can build down there. We want to impact it as little as possible, leave it as pristine as possible, but that makes it fine for the homeless people. A lot of the people down there are mentally unstable. We’d take down people from social services who’d try to solve the problems of the homeless in a positive way, but none of the people down there wanted it. So what can you do? I can’t take away a person’s freedom just because he’s not taking advantage of the programs that are available to him.”

I also talked to Mike Kelly who was at both July meetings representing the California Native Plant Society. Kelly had worked in projects in the Rancho Peñasquitos Preserve so had experience with the problems that might arise in the riverbed area. He is also the proprietor of a medical publishing business and the proprietor of Kelly and Associates, a habitat restoration business, which he started about four years ago.

“Pat Vinson and his team put together a big task force with Councilwoman Stallings,” he told me. “And I became involved because they had a problem: they couldn’t get the resource agencies that regulate habitat areas to sign off on the plan. So I got involved because I know these issues and work with these agencies and I’ve worked with open space parks and habitat areas before and still do. And eventually we were able to get everybody’s agreement on the concept of the type of the park we wanted. And we moved ahead and with the help of former Councilwoman Stallings’ office we were able to get a number of the parcels of land handed over to the parks department. They were already owned by public agencies, but not being managed in a significant way, just being neglected basically.

“The ultimate goal of the project is to acquire as much of the publicly owned land — and occasionally perhaps a private parcel — on San Diego River as possible in order to do two things: one is to connect up the habitat areas and to restore them and, two, to provide trail linkages. Hopefully, all the way from Ocean Beach up to Mission Trails Regional Park, which is a good 12 miles up the river. The idea is to provide public access to the river on the one hand and on the other hand to help restore it. It’s a pretty degraded river. So much so that the businesses along it typically put their walls to it, whereas in any other city the river would be the focus of the valley and your businesses and restaurants would face onto a very pretty and aesthetically pleasing river area that had some habitat value worth looking at.

“And we have several fairly immediate goals. We have several other parcels of land that we have been approached to manage. We hope to acquire these for the park. They would become owned by the city and we would help the city manage them. One of these parcels is adjacent to the existing park. The other is a couple of miles upstream. So that part of the goal looks realistic that we can acquire more property over the next 10 to 20 years.

"I see this easily as a 20-year project. Another immediate goal is to take the plethora of trails that are there now, that have been made by the homeless and other people over the years, and make sense out of them, reduce their number — there are far too many for that small an area and that sensitive an area — and come up with a trail for public access that will connect with trails to the west that already exist. There are some really nice trails along the San Diego River from the beach up to about I-5 and Pacific Highway, that’s where they stop. We want to extend them further upstream at least into our area and make it possible to take a nature walk and to visit the river.

“A very important goal this year is the development of a master plan to restore the natural resources on nearly 12 miles of the river. That’s a proposal our organization came up with and I helped write it. The proposal is now being funded, and that’s the good news. The city agreed to accept it as a supplemental environmental project as mitigation for its sewerage spill that it’s being fined for. The city was found guilty by the regional water quality board of allowing about 36 million gallons of sewerage to pour into the San Diego River for over a week. This was about a year ago February.

"If it had been a spill the city had gotten on top of right away, no problem, but it was determined there was negligence involved and there was a fine, a big fine — about three and a half million dollars. In other words, ten cents a gallon, something like that. Typically, in a situation like that the Regional Water Quality Control Board may let you have the option of working off part of the fine by agreeing to do some supplemental environmental projects that improve the water quality of that body of water. So the city proposed a list of projects. The water quality control board accepted some, rejected others. And the bottom line is that one of those is our project.

“Right now that means a master plan will be developed for the river all the way up to Mission Trails. And the idea behind this is that the master plan will be reviewed by all the regulatory agencies who will sign off on it and then it will become a plan that has to be followed and we can systematically organize these mitigation projects to make more sense of them than we currently can. I expect about $430,000 will go into our project which will be divided up into really three different projects.

"One is the master plan — that would cost about $94,000 — which involves getting low-level aerials of the whole river and then paying consultants, or city staff, to map the habitats unit by unit and come up with a plan for restoring each section of the river. A second is a smaller one costing about $6,000 to develop a concept trail plan for the river. The rest of the money would go for actually beginning some of the restoration work — implementing the plan — which would probably cover about 10 to 20 acres of the river. And there are a number of other projects approved to restore Adobe Falls where the sewerage spill occurred.”

I asked Kelly to define mitigation projects.

“When a developer or a public agency puts in a project in California they typically have to mitigate for the environmental impact that the project makes. If the project is going in on some good habitat that is going to be lost, typically they have to mitigate that by replacing that habitat. There are two ways this can happen. They may be required to purchase some mitigation land elsewhere. For instance, let’s say they impact ten acres of coastal sage scrub, they may be required to buy ten acres somewhere else in order to make up for that loss. Or they might buy credits in a mitigation bank. The city of San Diego and some private companies, businesses, have mitigation banks where they have purchased a big piece of land and they sell credits to developers — all public entities that need those credits so they can go forward with their projects. That’s one type of mitigation — when you purchase elsewhere to make up for the land that you’re impacting with your trolley line, your courthouse, your housing development and so on.

“The other type of mitigation is what’s called ‘riparian enhancement’ where you help restore a piece of land that’s degraded — perhaps it’s been bulldozed — and you come in with your contractor and you recontour the land and plant native plants. Or perhaps you restore it by simply getting rid of 50 percent of the exotic invasive plants, such as Arundo donax — that’s the one that most people see — that’s degrading our riparian areas. You get rid of the exotic trees or plants and you plant with natives.”

When the transit board put their trolley bridge over the preserve and the San Diego River, their mitigation project was to clear a certain area of Arundo donax and other non-natives, plant native willows and install an underground sprinkler system. Unfortunately, the homeless often break off the brass heads of the sprinklers and sell them, as well as breaking into the sprinkler system for water.

Another development so far this year has been a Park Bond Grant from the Urban Corps of America Training Program awarded through the State of California Department of Water Resources Urban Streams Restoration Program. This was applied for by Kelly and Carla Frogner, Tri-Canyon Senior Park Ranger of the city’s Department of Park and Recreation. Her area covers the preserve but also Tecolote Canyon Natural Park, Rose Canyon and Marian Bear Park.

“We applied for the grant to the Urban Corps to clean up debris, remove non-native plants, plant native plants and work on trail restoration,” Frogner told me. “But this would be a program where we would be training workers to do this. Our main focus is to protect the environment and enhance it, to bring back and clean up the open spaces. The grant would bring a whole bunch of people down there. But truthfully I don’t think the Urban Corps would have any effect on the homeless. They’ll still be there. We’ll just be cleaning up the area, performing a maid service for them.”

“The project is actually very modest,” Kelly told me. “It’s about a $45,000 training grant and Carla and I have volunteered to help train the Urban Corps team. We’ll train them in two things: how to clean up the trash on the river — and I don’t mean picking up little pieces of paper, although that’s part of it — but the big part of it requires equipment in order to do light dredging. There’s a ton of shopping carts and everything else in that river. It’s extremely dirty.

"So we’ll buy a flat-bottom boat and equipment necessary to do light dredging. And of course they’ll have to get all the usual permits. Even to clean up a river you need permits. The other part would be training them to identify and remove some of the major exotic invasive plants, such as the Arundo. Frankly, not more than a couple of acres will be cleaned up. But what they hope to do is with the teams and equipment — and I helped develop an equipment list — is they will then be able to apply for other grant money to allow them to do much bigger projects.”

The original River Task Force finished its work in 1998 and the riverbed area was designated as part of the Park and Recreation Department. At that point the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve was formed and began monthly meetings at Western Division Police Headquarters in order to move its projects forward.

“The preserve was dedicated as a park last fall,” Dr. Michael Mayer told me, “and the work is ongoing by a corps of pretty dedicated civilian people. In these meetings we don’t see the police officers come anymore, nor do we have the representatives of the agencies showing up. It’s all of the community folks. And often Marilyn Mirrasoul comes as sort of the representative of the city. Marilyn’s done a wonderful job. I think she’s pretty much doing all that is being done by that office, maintaining a mailing list and mailing these flyers and typing out the agenda for the meetings.

“As it stands right now, I didn’t get to go to the last meeting but Mike Kelly, the conservation chair, was to give a report about the status of the trail planning. They’re mapping out the existing trails and the river with Global Positioning Satellite technology. You see because it’s a floodplain the Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t allow any kind of permanent structure to be put down in the habitat itself, mainly because the banks of the river can overflow very easily and change over time. So the trail system that we’ve designed is not going to involve any permanent structures. The kiosks would be up out of the floodplain area and there would be no lighting.”

“We want to have a good trail system going in there,” said Mirrasoul. “And we want to expand the preserve a little bit, taking on other parcels if possible. Also some of the members of the Friends would like to start leading hikes down there. The same type of events as some of the other open space parks so people from usd can come down and do some of their studies and we can acquaint the neighbors with the events, teach them the names of all the different animals and birds and plants.”

But even as these plans are going forward, it struck me that other factors are dragging them back. Let me state that differently. Perhaps they were only slowing them up or possibly they are causing more serious damage. I’ll try to explain.

Some of the people who were first active in the project have been forced, by other demands, to become less actively involved. Dr. Michael Mayer, for instance, told me several times that he wasn’t able to attend meetings as often as he used to.

As for Pat Vinson, the dedication and hard work that he originally put into the project and which led him to be promoted sergeant also led him to be transferred out of the area to Northern Division Police Headquarters. Although he remains interested in the preserve, he now has other duties and concerns. In addition Officer Robb McCracken has moved to Oregon, while Teresa Kinney has had her shift changed and is now unable to attend the Friends’ meetings. Talking to her, I felt she seemed rather far away from the project. She was pregnant at the time with a baby due in August.

The sergeant in charge of the area now is Richard Schnell and the two officers who work under him are Robert Roche and Will Morris. In the time I spent with them they struck me as extremely serious and professional, but they seemed to have little interest in the history of the riverbed or the plant life or even the idea of the preserve. Indeed, they seemed skeptical of the idea of family hikes through the area and an event called “Kids’ Day at the Mission Valley Preserve.” After Rex and I were threatened by our murderous friend, I was rather skeptical myself.

And Officers Roche and Morris have many other duties — Roche said they had to spend most of their time “shagging radio calls” — and can only go down to the riverbed every couple of weeks or less. They assumed that the ranger in charge of the area was Carla Frogner, but they had never seen her in the preserve. This seemed understandable to them because she would be one woman down there alone and the area was unsafe.

However, Frogner said she indeed went down there and in any case the ranger in charge of the riverbed was her assistant, Jeff Viator, who patrols all four parks in the Tri-Canyon area. He is in his 30s, about five feet eight, stocky, tanned, with a blond goatee.

“I go down there either by myself or with a volunteer about three times a week,” Viator told me, “mostly by myself which isn’t smart because there are some rough guys down there. Actually I’ve never had any trouble. It all depends how you treat them. I’ve never had a problem but I don’t like their dogs. The guys themselves are pretty okay. It’s been a homeless area for decades. They’re just trying to live down there.”

Viator said that if he found a camp with nobody at home, he would tag it and give the person 24 hours to get out. However, if he found the person at home, he would give him two hours to get out. “If I find a fresh camp, I’ll clean it up and haul it out. Me and the volunteer drag out all the stuff ourselves. Usually the stuff we find is crap. I’ve never found anything of value, just trash and clothing.”

What struck me as somewhat peculiar is that Viator said he had never seen the police and the police said they had never seen Viator. This may be because they tend to concentrate on different sides of the river or because of the extreme thickness of the foliage or because they work on different days or at different times of day. Roche and Morris have the morning watch, work ten-hour days and four-day weeks. In addition, they have different days off and the preserve is not a good place to go by oneself. Or perhaps there is another reason.

Another discrepancy is the question of trespassing. Bordering the park along Friars Road are about ten No Trespassing signs. However, Marilyn Mirrasoul told me that ever since the preserve was dedicated as a park in the fall of 2000, the No Trespassing signs no longer apply and that people can go into the park without fear of breaking the law. The park rangers, Jeff Viator and Carla Frogner, agreed with this — people can come and go as they please. On the other hand, the policemen I spoke to said the preserve was defined as a non-people park and the No Trespassing signs meant what they said. In fact, while I was with them Roche and Morris warned several men that they were trespassing and one was told that if he was caught down there again he would go to jail.

A potentially more serious blow to the future of the preserve was the resignation of Valerie Stallings from the San Diego City Council on January 29 after pleading guilty to one misdemeanor for failing to report gifts from the Padres and team owner John Moores and one misdemeanor for failing to disqualify herself from council votes on Padres matters. Since she was a major force in getting the preserve off the ground and keeping it going, there was the question how this might affect its future.

By now of course Donna Frye has been elected, but when I originally wrote this story it was still a source of anxiety to many of the people involved. Would the new council member work on the preserve as energetically as Stallings or would he or she just shuffle it aside?

Then there was the question of Marilyn Mirrasoul who had been extremely active in representing Stallings’ interests. She could keep her position until the election, but afterward the new council member could ask her to resign or keep her on. This too has now been settled and Mirrasoul has resigned, but when I talked to people in early February it was a definite concern.

Mirrasoul herself had no idea what would happen, but she remained optimistic.

“I don’t know if I’ll be staying,” she told me. “It depends on who wins and that sort of thing. But I do think this project will continue whether I’m here or not. Since this preserve has been initiated and dedicated, there’s a lot more interest in looking at the entire San Diego River and there’s a group that’s forming to look at the whole river so I just see it as building momentum.”

Both rangers I talked to felt the project would certainly continue, but Viator had a few more doubts. “This was Stallings’ little baby,” he said. “She wanted to make it a park before she left office and all the groundwork’s in place. But Marilyn Mirrasoul was really Stallings’ right arm in working on the preserve. It’ll really be sad if she goes in April. I just don’t know how her resignation will affect it.”

Mike Kelly was also uncertain. “It’s hard to say if her resignation will make any difference. It depends on who gets elected. You never know how much they’ll put their heart and soul into it. Stallings put her heart into this park and it showed. Somebody else might not work as hard even though they might support it. If the park seems to have the stamp of a predecessor too much on it, they might want to focus on something else. If it’s an important focus for the community, they’ll tend to support it and support it well. It’s really going to be hard to say. This isn’t a park that has a big community buy-in yet.”

Sgt. Robert Gilbert who had supervised Vinson, McCracken and Kinney was more direct. “I don’t know what will happen. You need someone high up in city government to see it through. So what happens to the project partly depends on who is elected. It all starts at the top. That’s just how it is.”

A larger problem, and one that will perhaps be the most burdensome for the new council member, is the problem of the homeless. A number of people seem to think that if the non-native plants are removed, then the homeless will have fewer places to hide. The specialists like Mike Kelly and the rangers argue that this is not the case.

“With the homeless, we run them out and they just come back again,” said Carla Frogner. “As for what hides them best, the willow and mule fat is just as thick, just as dense and provides even better cover than the Arundo. The Arundo just strangles out habitat which just makes it so a gray fox can’t get from where he wants to breed to where he wants to hunt. But the Arundo doesn’t interfere with the homeless and it’s not our objective to stop them. We try to have them move on and let them know where they can seek shelter and about city programs, and if they want to take advantage of those, then they can. We hand out cards where they can get help, but that doesn’t eliminate them being there. As for what might decrease their numbers, that’s a federal problem. Get more programs, get more jobs. It’s not something that a park ranger is going to solve.”

However, in the past few years the number of homeless in the Mission Valley Preserve seems to have been increasing. When I talked to Mirrasoul on the phone, she thought there were about a dozen living in the riverbed area. I told her I had seen about 25 and more than a dozen camps that were being used, including buttoned-up tents. Also it was during the day when one might assume that people wouldn’t be at home. Also I had seen only a small part of the area. I estimated there were at least 50.

“Fifty? Hmm,” she said. “The more you utilize these areas then the less issues you have with the homeless. The rangers need to be patrolling more and the police. Also I didn’t know that there were 50 down there. I hadn’t heard that from them and I will be reporting it to the lieutenant as soon as I get off the line with you.”

I had already spent several days with the police and had talked to a number of the homeless. First I had talked to the man currently in charge of the area, Sgt. Richard Schnell. He told me that when the homeless were kicked out of the riverbed area, many would move to the canyons off Washington St., then come back again later. “A lot of these guys are backpacking. They can pack up in an hour and be back after Environment Services have gone.”

He too felt the numbers of homeless would be reduced if the Arundo were taken out, as well as some of the other foliage. The difficulty was that the environmentalists had blocked the removal of any of the indigenous plants used by the homeless as shelters. At one point some years before, the police had been able to go in and simply clean out the camps, but a few of the homeless had successfully brought suit against the city, claiming that the police had thrown out valuable heirlooms, and so now the police had to tag and photograph the camps with notices saying they would be removed on such and such a day. However, some camps were buried so deep that they were impossible to find.

Sgt. Schnell also told me that arresting the homeless had no lasting effect. “All we can do is to put them through the system, but the system doesn’t do anything. It just spits them out again.”

Then Schnell introduced me to the two officers who patrolled the area and did the sweeps — Robert Roche and Will Morris. I spoke mostly to Roche who is 60, about six feet tall, tanned, white-haired, glasses — a handsome, rugged face with dimples when he smiles. He is originally from New Mexico, has a cowboy way about him and plans to go back to New Mexico when he retires. He came here 30 years ago in the service and has been a cop since about 1972.

“The majority of homeless we run into as police officers down there are people in the criminal element, parole violators or on parole with the stipulation that they’re supposed to be indoors somewhere, living in a residence, having a job and maintaining themselves like regular citizens and not living in riverbeds and doing their dope and things and alcohol. These folks don’t want to live in shelters. They want their space. They don’t want to be regimented. They want total freedom and still have access to restaurants and facilities in the area. Sometimes we find new faces of folks who are not in the criminal element — people who are homeless, but don’t have the funds for the first down payment on rent, such as the first month, the last month and the deposit. And sometimes maybe their credit record isn’t so clean so they have a hard time getting housing. So they hear that you can live down in the riverbed and they find themselves down there sooner or later. We’ve found ex-military guys who didn’t have the funds for housing. They built themselves little hooches, had their laundry clean, everything was packed neat. They had makeshift chairs out of bamboo, bedding out of bamboo. Everything was arranged like you would find in a regular house or apartment.

“The people we deal with down here are basically your drug users — usually heroin, meth and marijuana. They’ve had so much of the drug that they can no longer function as a working person. They can’t hold a job. They don’t want to work. They go panhandle at a corner for some money. They get 20 bucks and go buy some dope. And we try to find out who their suppliers are but they won’t give us that information. ‘Who’s selling you this stuff?’ They don’t want to talk about it. We had information a year or so ago about a guy in a nice red shiny car and a nice polo shirt and slacks who pushed dope on these guys up at the trolley station. There was a one-armed transient, a known narcotics user, who was buying narcotics from the guy in the car and selling it out here on the streets.

"Then the transient got murdered. The day he died he’d made a score. He had about $800 in his pocket that he’d just made off his dope. We don’t know who killed him. He was found lying alongside the ditch up by the Morena bridge. We looked around for the guy in the red car but in a marked police car you just don’t see him. And we’ll never see him until one of those guys down there says, ‘That’s him.’ Somebody really pulls a snitch on him. And that doesn’t happen. So there’s this supplier who’s making money on these poor folks — 10, 20, 25 bucks at a time. These are the poor guys that get sick, these are the poor guys that die with that stuff in their arms, while he’s over there in some nice condominium probably.

"There’s a guy down there named Dusty that’s got one tooth left in his head, just one tooth, and he’s about 60 years old. I met him about three years ago. He’s been on dope since he’s been 14, he said. And he knows he’s going to die that way. He’ll tell you, ‘This is me, this is it. This is where I’m going, you know? Gotta have it. Gotta have it.’ And he can’t change. He’s too messed up. You gotta feel sorry for that kind of guy. Don’t know what happened to him, what caused him to go into that, but he started as a youngster, way back.

“The laws we enforce, basically, are illegal lodging, illegal fires and then narcotic activity. And at times we find parolees at large that are wanted by their parole officers. What happens is the first time we see a new face we give him a warning. We have an interrogation form that we fill out with their names. It’s not an arrest, just a detention. We give them the word not to be in here, not to come back. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. And if we come back again and see the same person — this time it’s an arrest and we’ll give a written citation. This is an arrest, but it’s not a physical arrest. And what happens for the most part is that these guys don’t go to court.

"The courts dates are usually set 21 days after the arrest and in that time they seem to forget about it. So the day of the court they’re scheduled for an eight o’clock appearance and they’re not there and the judge puts out a $5,000 warrant for their arrest for illegal lodging and a contempt of court charge. So now they have two charges against them. So a month or two later we do another sweep. We walk in and we always run warrant checks on everybody we contact. And we’ll come by and yeah he’s wanted for the 647J — illegal lodging and contempt of court. We take them to jail and they go see the judge. And if it’s the first few times it’s my understanding that since they don’t have the money they’ll say, ‘I’ll do the three days’ or ‘I’ll do five days.’ Then they do the time and are kicked loose and they’re right back again. And with some of these guys it’s been going on months and months. We’ve arrested them numerous times.

"But recently our sergeant talked to the judge and proposed that they be sentenced to 180 days’ jail time. And the judge said that was fine. And when these guys have come back to that judge they’ve been told that if they go back in there and then come back into court, then they’ll get 180 days. One guy — Anthony Brown — he’s in jail right now for that, because when he was given that notice he went back in there and housed himself and he was caught and put in jail. We did another sweep and we saw him and right now he’s in jail. So it’s 180 days but he might get time off for good behavior. That’s up to the sheriff. Once they’re in their custody they do what they do. That’s the sheriff’s business. Sometimes they might serve 80 percent of their time and then get cut loose. If a guy’s got real good behavior, they say, ‘Hey, you’re outta here.’ Something like that.

“I came in contact with Brown in the riverbed three years ago. He’s married. He’s got a wife. Sometimes she’s down there. We’ve arrested her too. But she lives with her parents up in Clairemont. But her parents don’t want her husband around. They don’t like him. So he can’t stay at the house. She can but he can’t. So she houses herself at her mom’s house; he houses himself down here. She’ll bring him money, bring him food, whatever. But again he’s a drug dealer, a drug user and so is she and the guys she hangs out with. So the bulk of the guys who are down there are your drug addicts.

“Myself, I didn’t get involved with this riverbed until roughly eight or nine years ago. Before that, other officers were involved. So it’s been going on a long time. But the movement to start the preserve began in ’96 and I became involved in it through our command here, then it became more intensive and we began to do more to enforce the laws. We’d go there as a full squad of guys and gather up 25 guys and we’d bring them to the station and get them all processed for jail. The bulk of those people are gone, most of them have moved out somewhere else. But they’ll find spots that we can’t go. They’ll cross little creeks and things that we won’t go across because they’re just too dangerous — you can slip and fall. But these guys will walk through the water and make little pathways where they can get through safely without falling down and live in places where we can’t get to them.

"Over by Highway 5 in the channel there are three or four guys and I went there about a year ago. It was hard to get them but we did, but it’s almost not worth going down there for that because you’re liable to get yourself hurt. And if you get yourself trapped and they turn sideways on you and you have to fight, then you’re not going to get any help because the cops don’t know how to get in there so you’re in trouble. But I’ve never had a fight down there, never had to take anyone by force. It’s never come down to a physical confrontation. Even so, many cops don’t want to go down there — they call it a dirty detail. But I like hiking through the brush. Maybe it’s because I’m from New Mexico and I grew up with it.”

Roche’s partner, Will Morris, talked about the stolen property that had been found in the riverbed area — TVs, stereos and countless bikes. He explained that the homeless who lived in out-of-the-way areas like the preserve tended to be on narcotics, while the ones found in the city were more likely alcoholics. The narcotic addicts needed their privacy in order to shoot up, to pursue their drug of choice; the alcoholics wanted to be close to the liquor stores.

Morris is in his 40s, dark-haired and compact. He gives the impression of being able to move fast. He didn’t seem to judge the homeless, but of the two policemen he appeared to find their lives even more incomprehensible than did Roche.

Morris also described how when they had the big sweep in 1996 they had brought along social service workers who offered to take the homeless to shelters, rehabilitation centers, whatever they needed. “They made the offer to a lot of them, I don’t know the exact number, in the high double digits, but only a couple agreed and then they never showed up.” Morris said they were told that the shelters were too crowded, that people had no privacy and they had to leave first thing in the morning. The homeless they spoke to complained about illness, hiv and robbery. “Even now when I offer to take them to a shelter, they say, ‘That’s a little bit too real for me, officer.’ Well, there are lots of alternatives for them and after those alternatives run out, they go to jail.”

Morris said that quite a few of the homeless in the riverbed area were “on the SSI,” supplemental security income, and could receive up to $700 a month, others got money from the veterans for some Vietnam disability. Some were 51-50. The police, park rangers and a few others used this number as an adjective to mean mentally deranged, but technically it refers to the California mental health Welfare and Institution Code 5150 for the detention and transport of a person for assessment, evaluation and treatment of a mental disorder at a county-designated treatment facility. The person is picked up because there is probable cause that he is a danger to others, a danger to himself or gravely disabled and can be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours. He may be schizophrenic, manic-depressive or suffering from something far more minor.

Earlier Roche and Morris had come across two homeless men and asked them to talk to me. The men had agreed. They were waiting outside in the lobby and now Morris brought them in. One was Brian Doyle, 47, about five feet ten, long blond hair and beard, blue eyes, jeans and a yellow jacket. He had been living in the riverbed area for four years. The second man, Paul Pepmiller, was a little older, about the same height, wearing a black cap with Fairways Unlimited printed across the front — long brown hair fell from underneath. He had a brown beard, brown eyes, jeans and a red jacket. He had lived in the preserve since about 1988. Their clothes were ragged and dirty, wrinkled and stained. Their creased faces were sun-worn, life-worn. They walked to the table, both jaunty and suspicious with an air of aggrieved innocence. They treated the cops as competitors, members of the opposing team that at the moment happened to be winning.

They first talked about how they made their money, which was by holding up signs at intersections. “We can make $75 to $100 a day,” said Pepmiller, “if we don’t get hassled by the police.” They said they also did some part-time work, odd jobs. Doyle had worked construction and as a painter. Pepmiller had worked at a swap meet for three years and also as a cook.

Morris asked, “Do you guys can at all?” Meaning do you collect returnable bottles. Not often, they said.

“Tell the truth,” said Morris, “have you ever stolen copper wire from construction sites and abandoned buildings and sold it or stolen stuff and sold it at a swap meet or sold stuff for other people? I’m just wondering, you won’t get in trouble.” Pepmiller and Doyle denied it vigorously. “What about drug dealing?” asked Morris. Again there was vigorous denial.

“People sometimes drop off food for us,” said Pepmiller.

“And there’s a Mexican restaurant that gives us food,” said Doyle. “They even give us money sometimes. And Carl’s Jr. gives us space. They’re real good to us. We get free refills on coffee.”

I had looked into that particular Carl’s Jr. one day. It’s on Morena Boulevard about three blocks from the preserve. A sign on the wall announced that the restaurant had an occupancy limit of 103 people, that there was a 30-minute limit in the dining room and that a purchase was required. Four homeless men had been sitting at tables drinking coffee. They hadn’t been in any hurry.

The longer Pepmiller and Doyle talked, the more at ease they became. They spoke about how some of the homeless broke the heads off the sprinklers and sold them or how they broke the valves to get fresh water. They added that they themselves would never do anything like that. However, after a while Doyle admitted he sometimes turned on a sprinkler in order to wash — “I might be on the street but I don’t like being dirty.”

Pepmiller was quick to say that he also disliked being dirty. “Twice a year — on my birthday and at Christmas — my parents will send me some money, and me and some other guys will get a motel room and wash.”

“We try to stay out of the way down there,” said Doyle. “No one can see us. We’re just trying to get by. They say go to a shelter. Shit, you’d might as well go back to jail. I’d go off the edge in the shelter. They have all these rules. I like my space. They have too many bottle nuts, alcoholics. It’s different down where we are. Meth and heroin are the drugs of choice. My brother’s in prison right now for meth possession.”

Roche explained that Brian Doyle’s brother, Denny, was a “second striker” who was caught down in the riverbed with a pocketful of “meth rock.” He was sick and skinny. In a deal worked out with the prosecutor’s office, he was sentenced to about two years. Recently he had sent a snapshot of himself to his brother, which Brian Doyle took out of his wallet and passed around. Will Morris whistled. The picture showed five men stripped down to their shorts, marked up with jail tattoos and striking weightlifter poses. All were brawny and muscular, especially Brian’s brother.

Everybody agreed that prison had done Denny Doyle a world of good. I found the conversation somewhat surreal. Pepmiller went back to talking about the shelters.

“Anyway, they say there’s a one-month waiting list. And there’s no respect in there, there’s always fights. And you can’t trust the alkies. The riverbed’s better. I been there too long to move. But a lot of times other people come through for a few days and steal stuff and cause us trouble. But, you know, the wild animals come to depend on us for food — skunks and raccoons.”

“But don’t get me wrong,” said Doyle, “it’s not the easiest place to live what with the cold and the rain. It takes survival skills. In the summer there can be a hundred or so people. They all steal from each other, steal from each other’s camps. They’re all cowards down there. They’d shit in their own back yards.”

I asked if there were really a hundred people there during the summer and they said it was true.

“And there been murders,” said Pepmiller. “One-armed Randy, a heroin addict pretty much, almost got decapitated last year, and maybe eight years ago Amanda got stabbed 27 times and had her head bashed in, and Jungle Jane was murdered. But there can be as much danger living in a mansion, you know what I mean?”

“Originally, I went down there to goof off,” Doyle told me. “I quit my job doing construction and went down there because my brother was down there. He was a parole violator and he was hiding out. Now I’m just taking it day by day. I’m not having no fun anymore. You don’t have to come down to a riverbed to get high. It’s wearing off. I’ve had a lot of tragedy in my life. My father was an addict, my sister was murdered, but it wasn’t drugs that put me down there. Though right now my big problem is meth. And marijuana. I’ve always smoked marijuana and I’ll probably smoke it until I die. The reason they won’t legalize it is they don’t know how to tax it. That’s the only problem. But with me, I’ll smoke it, but it’s run its course. I’m too old for that shit anymore. It doesn’t do anything for me. Even so I’d rather do time than go to a drug rehab. Sometimes I think that without the police it would be like a kind of commune down there, but then I think that the people down there aren’t playing with a full deck. Three out of four have mental problems and even I’m not fifty-fifty.…”

Pepmiller interrupted. “I’ve got chronic manic-depression,” he said rather proudly, “and I’ve made five suicide attempts. I stay down there to keep my head straight. But I don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow never gets here, right? If I let myself feel fear, it would gobble me up. I just don’t think about it. You met Petey, right? He’s my stepbrother. Well, he’s got prostate cancer and when he dies I’m going to get his inheritance.”

“His inheritance?” I asked, thinking of the little man who had been looking for a handle for his machete.

Pepmiller was perfectly serious. “That’s right, his inheritance.”

Officer Morris asked, “How many times have we given you breaks?”

Doyle was not quite willing to admit that the police had behaved well. “Yeah, you cut us some slack, but you’ve taken me to jail too.” He turned to me. “These guys are too good now, too sly. Even the dog won’t bark.”

“But do we treat you right?” asked Morris.

“Pretty much,” said Pepmiller. “Well, you do your job.”

A sergeant came in and gave Pepmiller and Doyle each $5 for agreeing to talk to me. They couldn’t believe it and kept looking at the bills as if expecting them to vanish.

“No one’s going to believe this,” said Pepmiller.

Brian has had quite a few charges for illegal lodging and now had a court date. Morris asked, “Do you mean to keep it?” Brian indicated that he probably wouldn’t. Morris said that if Brian was caught down in the riverbed area again, he would get 180 days in jail. He asked, “You plan to go down there again?”

Doyle didn’t respond but Morris wanted an answer. Doyle indicated that he would probably go down there again. His main concern, it seemed, was not to make Morris angry, but Morris seemed more perplexed than angry.

“Don’t you ever feel fear?” Morris asked. “What if you get sick?”

Both men said that they never felt fear but they didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the question.

Morris kept pushing it. “Where do you see yourselves in five years. Do you have a game plan?”

“Hell no,” said Pepmiller, “I just don’t think about it.”

“No idea,” said Doyle, “but like I said, it’s not fun like it used to be.”

On a Monday around 8:15 I went down into the riverbed area with officers Roche and Morris who were going to tag and photograph campsites. They would also issue warnings to anyone they found. I could only spend about 45 minutes with them because I had to meet Sgt. Vinson back at the police station around nine. Roche and Morris were dressed in flannel shirts, jeans and boots, though they wore their cop belts. Morris said their uniforms were too expensive to damage them by barging through the underbrush. They parked on Friars by a bridge and we went down a path by a No Trespassing sign.

Within a few minutes we met a man coming out — balding with sandy hair, deeply tanned face, dressed in torn clothes. Morris and Roche questioned him. He didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to give his name, mumbled his answers so the cops had to ask him to repeat himself. He wouldn’t look at the cops, but they knew him. His name was Dave Ruffner. He said he was born in 1951, but he looked ten years older. The cops asked him for his ID. He said he didn’t have any ID.

“Don’t you even have a social security card?” asked Roche.

Ruffner shook his head. “I never had one.” He claimed to have been down there only a day or two.

“Come on, you’ve lived down here over five years,” said Roche.

“Why don’t you stay in the homeless shelter?” asked Morris.

“Maybe I’ll find out about it,” said Ruffner.

The officers said that if he was found down there again he would be brought into court for trespassing and illegal lodging. This didn’t seem to faze him, though he clearly saw it as unfortunate to run into the police. After being written up, Ruffner was released.

“We call him an arson,” said Roche. “He makes the most perfect golden potatoes you’ve ever seen. The trouble is that he doesn’t dig a hole and put rocks around to make a fire pit. He just makes it in the open and the fire takes off. Next thing you’ve got a palm tree burning and all the brush burning and the fire department has to respond and they have to drag the hoses all the way in. It’s a real job. Anyway, he’s 51-50.”

Next we found a huge pile of debris from an old camp. Roche and Morris marked it. Then they found a recent camp surrounded by string.

“Some of these guys will tie string all the way around their campsite to warn them that somebody’s approaching,” said Roche. “They don’t trust each other. They’ll trust the guys they run with, but not a guy over here who’s out of their group. They rip each other off. If somebody wants something, he’ll go take it. And if I’m stronger than you, it’s going to be mine — that kind of thing. It’s the survival of the fittest.

"And we’ve found booby traps where they’d dig holes, then cover them up with shrubbery — right in the middle of the path — so when you walk on that path you’re liable to sink your foot and break your ankle, or trip and fall. And we’ll find bamboo leaves that are pulled back with a string so if you pull hard it will snap and catch you in the face. Little things that make it harder for the cops, but it may not even be for the cops. It may be to give them a warning that someone’s coming up on them, like another transient.”

Shortly, in the dense brush we met a man sitting on a log. He was tall, in his 40s with blondish-gray hair, blue eyes, dirty tan pants, a blue plaid shirt and a red backpack. His name was Rolf. Because they have found him in an enclosed space and have to stand close together, Morris handcuffed him. Rolf didn’t protest. He seemed more depressed than anxious.

Morris asked if he was camping and if he hadn’t seen the No Trespassing signs.

“I’m not camping,” said Rolf. “I live in University Heights. I’m not homeless. I like to get away from my house once in a while. It’s really close to the neighbors. They make a lot of noise. I’m in between jobs. I’m just sitting here contemplating. I see people coming in here all the time so I didn’t think the No Trespassing signs meant anything.”

The officers kept questioning him. They glanced into his backpack but didn’t search it. Roche explained that he would give Rolf an advisory the first time, a citation the second time and would arrest him the third time.

“Most people don’t respect this place,” said Rolf. “They leave trash everyplace. I always take out trash when I leave.” He repeated several times that he was just contemplating, sitting on the log contemplating.

Morris asked him for his social security number and Rolf refused to give it. “I can’t do that, it’s just a policy.”

The police didn’t press it. Rolf said he didn’t have a driver’s license. The police were firm but not unfriendly. Morris found the muddy stub end of a marijuana cigarette under where Rolf had been sitting. Had he been smoking marijuana? Rolf said no and appeared surprised to see it. Morris removed the handcuffs, warned Rolf not to come back and sent him on his way.

“I’m pretty sure he was down here to hit a joint,” said Roche.

A minute later we saw a young blond man across the river sitting underneath a tree. The river was about 15 feet wide at that point. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt that seemed clean. Morris called to him. “What are you doing?”

The man was startled. He said he wasn’t doing anything; he was just sitting. Presumably, like Rolf, he too was contemplating. Like the place was full of thinkers.

Morris told him to wait right there until they got around to the other side. The man agreed to wait. Later Roche told me that he hadn’t waited. No one was surprised.

We moved on down the narrow path with Arundo donax pressing close around us, palms rising above us. We passed another great pile of debris from an old camp, then Morris and Roche marked a tent, which had been closed up.

Soon afterward we came upon a man sitting on the ground in front of a blue tent eating some awful-looking concoction out of a large orange plastic cup. It looked like the papier-mâché gunk I used in projects in grade school. The stuff was so ugly that it was almost the first thing the three of us saw.

“What in the world are you eating?” asked Morris.

The man looked into his bowl. “Cereal.”

The police knew him. His name was Daniel Williams. He was 42, tall, very thin with long brown hair and a beard — a thin, handsome, childlike face. He told me later that he had been in prison and had a record of assault and battery convictions. However, he was so thin that he didn’t seem very dangerous.

Roche told Williams that he would be coming back tomorrow with Environmental Services to take away everything they found. They had him hold up the notice, stating that he was in violation, then Morris took his picture in front of his tent with a Polaroid camera. They said that if they saw him down here again, he would be arrested.

As the policemen poked around I talked a little more to Williams. He had lived in the riverbed area since the late ’80s and had been arrested many times before.

“I’m fully cognizant so I can talk to anybody,” Williams said, “but I’m really very anti-social so I can’t deal with people very well. I guess you could say I never got my social integration skills. I earn money by recycling. I don’t need much. Sure I’ll leave today but I’ll be back the day after. I’ll just work my way deeper into the bush, that’s all; find some deeper place to hide. I’ve been here 14 years and for me this constitutes a stable environment. Actually, I was raised on Guam so I’m not an American. It’s because of that that I don’t have American values.” Williams said all of this in a matter-of-fact manner. I asked him about living in a shelter and he repeated what he had said about his lack of social integration skills. He couldn’t imagine living in a shelter.

When I got back to the policemen, Roche shrugged and said, “51-50.” Then he added, “Williams knows the game. We go in, we clean up and he moves out. Once it’s cleaned up he knows we’re probably not going to be back for another two months, so he moves right back in. And in those two months he accumulates the same type of junk all over again. That’s what they do; they steal things and bring them back. In his case, he says he doesn’t steal; he just goes out to different trash bins. It could be true. People throw out old stuff, old TVs, old toasters, old clothing. He brings it in, knows what he needs, the rest is just discarded. That’s part of the game plan for them.”

By now it was nearly nine and I had to get back to meet Sgt. Vinson. In 45 minutes, Morris and Roche had spoken with four men and seen three closed-up camps. On my way out, I saw another man walking along and two more camps, as well as the debris from half a dozen former camps — all this in a fraction of the preserve. Later Roche told me they had talked to three more men and identified about six more camps. And it had been mid-morning, a time when most of the residents of the riverbed area might be expected to be off at work, as it were.

The next morning I met Roche with three solid waste enforcement officers of the city’s Department of Environmental Services in the parking lot of the police station about 8:30. This Tuesday was Morris’ day off and Roche was working alone. In order to effect the cleanup, Roche had put in a cleanup request to Carla Frogner, who put in a work order request to Environmental Services which had contracts with various groups to do the actual work — sometimes the probation department, parolees working off fines for misdemeanors, people working off traffic tickets. Park and Rec pays the bill.

"Today the contract was with Alpha Project, a nonprofit organization that works with the homeless in such areas as providing jobs, housing assistance, helping with addiction recovery and educational counseling. These particular workers came from the project’s Casa Raphael in Vista which offers a 9- to 12-month program to recovering alcoholics and addicts, most of whom are also homeless, where they can work, be housed and attend training and 12-step programs. Over 100 men live in Casa Raphael and if they complete the program they leave with jobs and a minimum of $1,500 in the bank.

The three solid waste enforcement officers were Sylvia Sowadski, who is pretty and dark-complected with a profusion of brown hair; Luis Sainz, a solidly built young man wearing a Padres cap; and L.C. Wright, a trim African-American with a tidy goatee, who had accompanied Pat Vinson into the area five years ago when they dragged out 100 tons of trash. He has been back innumerable times since. When I made some reference to having been briefly lost within the maze of paths, he said, “I been in there so many times, it’s like second nature to me. If I’m ever homeless, I know where I’m going. No, I could never do that.”

The three crowded in the back of the patrol car, I got in front and Roche drove down Friars to the preserve. Sainz and I discussed baseball and how we’d like to see the Yankees get whipped. Roche meant to take the environmental officers to the places he had tagged yesterday so they could show them to the Casa Raphael workers.

The 20 or so men from Casa Raphael ranged from their early 20s to about 50 and carried shovels, pitchforks, rakes and great canvas tarps. I followed two of them into the brush and right away, hidden behind some trees, they found a camp that Roche and Morris had missed the day before. They began to pull out coolers and duffel bags, but then were told to put them back since the camp hadn’t been tagged.

Five men were breaking down a big encampment covered by a roof of large blue tarps stretched between the trees. It seemed abandoned but I found a newspaper that was only three weeks old. The camp contained sheets of cardboard, plastic, sleeping bags, blankets, cooking utensils, plastic water jugs, rugs, about 20 bike tires, dozens of milk cartons, Styrofoam containers and tin cans, plastic and glass bottles, can openers, teapots, and lots of books — The Chieftain by John Norman, a science fiction classic by Fritz Lieber and Future Shock. In fact, most of the encampments had books and most were science fiction, lots of Star Trek, but sometimes Dungeons and Dragons workbooks. I also found a Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous. The date on the flyleaf was December 11, 2000. Other camps also had the Big Book, as well as pocket Bibles, prayer books, and a fair number of pornographic magazines. And there were a lot of poems and drawings — often of nudes, sometimes of flowers.

A young man named Randall from Casa Raphael, who said he had been homeless himself, kept looking around at the junk as he tossed it onto an opened tarp. He was jumpy and talked fast. “When you’re tweaking [using crystal meth] anything makes sense, like having five TVs that don’t work makes sense. If you’re tweaking, you’d take half this stuff home with you. I been clean for three months, but maybe I’m not an addict, maybe I’m just crazy. These people living down here, I don’t have a problem with it except for the pollution. They make a real mess.” He turned to a coworker. “Wouldn’t you take most of this stuff home with you if you were tweaking?”

The coworker was scornful. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t touch it.”

Apart from this camp most of what was being pulled out was old camp debris, piling it up on the canvases, then dragging it through the brush to the truck. It was heavy, dirty work. Another camp was found that had been missed yesterday. Williams’ tent was gone. Roche led the environmental officers to different spots, telling what needed to be done. They appeared daunted by the amount and said only a small part could be done that day. Standing among the debris of another camp, Roche described a couple in their 50s from Lemon Grove who had lived in this area with all their possessions for two years because they couldn’t afford housing, had furniture and everything, then had been forced to move out with 72 hours’ warning. Then he told us about another man with hair like felt and his shoes full of maggots. He led us to another camp.

Plastic tarps, cardboard, blankets, cooking utensils, pieces of clothing — this camp still might be occupied. The environmental officers looked around as Roche began a story.

“There was this transient, George, that cut the guy’s ear off. He was taking the man’s suitcase and the man said, ‘That’s mine.’ And George said, ‘No it’s not.’ And because George is meaner, powerful and stronger and an ex-army paratrooper — and in the army that was his reward for a kill to take off the enemies’ ears and he carried that over here to the streets — so he took the man’s ear off. Then he beat him and took his property and threatened to kill him if he didn’t put his head up there on the railway track until George was out of sight. And the guy did what he was told because he didn’t want to die. And once George walked away, the guy went and got help, but he’s minus an ear.

"And George is the one who raped and killed an 80-year-old lady in Oakland and I don’t know if he was ever arrested for that mayhem down here or that murder. But the time he was living down in the riverbed we didn’t know that. We had contact with him week after week and we’d see him on the street and we’d say, ‘How’re you doin’ George?’ And he’d say, ‘Okay.’ We’d taken a gun from him and he’d come right up to the front counter asking for his gun we’d impounded. He’d say, ‘Can I have my gun back?’ And the officer on duty would say, ‘Nah, go down to the gun desk downtown and talk to them.’ But he’d come up for three weeks straight asking for that gun. I mean, it didn’t even work. Then one day someone ran his name again through the computer and it came back that he was wanted on a murder warrant. But he was already gone. Nobody here had seen him for over a week. Then we started looking for him — we got to find this guy, you know. But he never turned up. Just left town, I guess. Haven’t seen him since. Gone. And who knows, maybe he’s in prison now, maybe somebody caught him. We don’t get that information. He could have gone to another state or city, because that warrant was all over the nation, Canada and Mexico. If he did any kind of theft, even petty theft, even steal something to eat, cops get hold of him and do a warrant check, then it would pop up that he was wanted for the murder warrant. That’s how a lot of them get caught.”

We went back to the patrol car to drive to the other side of the river. A fourth environmental officer joined us and all four were in the back. No one looks their best locked in the back of a patrol car and all four looked seriously squeezed together and thoughtful. Roche joked about the time when he had had six drunken Navy pilots back there. “They were all good guys, meant no harm. Completely smashed. They all looked exactly the same, had these little mustaches.”

Once across the river, Roche drove along Hotel Circle North, then down a narrow road toward the entrance to Sefton Park Little League field. The tall, chain-link gate was blocked by U-Haul trucks. Roche got someone to move them. The manager of the rental office, a grinning gray-haired man, stuck his head in the police car and said without preamble, “You hear about how Minnie Mouse took Mickey Mouse to court for calling her crazy? So Mickey Mouse tells the judge, I didn’t say she was crazy, I said she was fucking Goofy.” The man guffawed and walked away. Roche made a noncommittal noise that might have been a cough or a laugh. For a moment there was silence in the backseat, then Sylvia said, “Can’t he see there’s a woman in here?”

Roche drove onto a dirt road around the Little League park and into the preserve. After about 200 yards he stopped. We climbed over a wooden rail fence and walked through a stand of young willows. L.C. Wright explained that it was a mitigated area — non-indigenous plants had been taken out and the indigenous willows had been put in, as well as an underground sprinkler system and a number of ponds. It was part of the trade-off with the trolley people. We walked along the river and in ten minutes found the debris of three old camps and one newish camp. The environmental officers said there was no way to remove any of it that day. We are more than half a mile from where I will be threatened five days later and where I’ll see half a dozen other camps.

Fifteen minutes later we were back to the other side of the river by a new tent belonging to an absent homeless person. Around it were a new battery-powered portable TV, a gas camping stove, new sleeping bag, new Coleman lantern, new flashlight and some clothes. The boxes for the camping stuff were scattered around the tent. Sylvia took photographs, then put the stove, TV, etc., back in their boxes. Valuable articles are impounded for safekeeping and can be reclaimed.

As the environmental officers collected the camping stuff, Roche talked about how some transients got their stuff washed away in the floods. “We’ve found guys down there who had a little bit of smarts about terrain and will put their tent or whatever on high ground, or doing things where the water actually goes around them.” Then he talked about the guys out here drinking and shooting heroin. “Dope is cheap nowadays, uncut Columbian, so they can get $5 packages, $10 packages. The problem is that it’s bad quality and we’ve had guys die.”

Roche identified two more camps and the debris from three former camps — mattresses, clothes, cardboard, ping pong balls, more poems and drawings, more science fiction books, Dungeons and Dragons workbooks. A pocket New Testament with the name Alvarez on the inside cover. An unsigned poem entitled “All Alone.” L.C. Wright said they could do about a quarter of what had been tagged. He said they would try to schedule another pickup day next week. Everyone sounded frustrated.

I went off to join the workers who were pulling out the debris. It was now early afternoon. I talked to Bartholomew who was a supervisor for Alpha Project. “I’ve had a drug problem but I’ve been clean for eight years and this keeps me busy. When we came in here this morning it was all trash and now it looks different. It’s a day’s work and it makes us feel good.”

He said they had crews working with Environmental Services five days a week — street maintenance, cleanup crews and other projects. In order to get into Casa Raphael a man had to be alcohol and drug free for at least two days. A lot of the people in Casa Raphael are “coming off the bush,” he said.

A handsome man named Greg in his early 30s said, “We’re just trying to get our lives back together. I got a couple of duis because of drinking. I lost my job, lost my family. Right now I’m trying to change my life. Everything we get is free and they give us a small stipend each week. The work we do — it’s about giving back to the Casa.”

I was struck by the fact that the police had told me that representatives from social services had offered help to nearly a hundred homeless in the riverbed area, but had been turned down. On the other hand, several who I had talked to from Casa Raphael had said that a number of them had once camped in the preserve.

So the next day I turned my attention to whatever organization might be keeping their eye on the homeless in the riverbed area, as far as social services were concerned.

After a few false starts I wound up at the North Central Mental Health Clinic at 1250 Morena Boulevard, about five blocks from the Mission Valley Preserve, which provides the offices for one of the county’s four Homeless Outreach Teams. I first talked briefly to a young man at the desk who was an unlicensed trainee with the team. He told me he had recently been on a police sweep in Chula Vista where police had cleared out a large camp of homeless people and another Homeless Outreach Team had helped the homeless with social service information.

There were supposed to be four members to the team, but there was presently a vacancy. The other members were two social workers: Sally Dunn and Alma Porley. I spoke an even shorter amount of time with Porley who said she had never been down in the preserve. However, she believed that some of the homeless had come to their office for assistance. Protocol was very strict and it was clear that she didn’t want to talk to me.

Then I talked to her supervisor, Deborah Malcarne, a social worker and program manager at North Central Mental Health. Malcarne didn’t want to talk to me either and insisted several times that I talk to Piedad Garcia, Clinical Director for Mental Health Services for the County of San Diego. However, Malcarne said the team didn’t go down into the riverbed area because they didn’t think it was safe for women. She hadn’t heard of the Friends of the Preserve, the efforts of Valerie Stallings, the activities of the police and the park rangers, the sweeps and the cleanups. But she seemed very interested and wanted to know who to get in touch with. I gave her the necessary phone numbers.

When I spoke to Piedad Garcia on the telephone, she told me that the Homeless Outreach Team helped the homeless in such areas as obtaining bus passes, ID, food, employment, and also helped the mentally ill. However, its members didn’t go down in the riverbed area. “We might go down with a male team, but not with a female team where there is a safety issue. These people have been homeless for quite some time and are very, very anti-establishment, anti-system. They don’t want to be worked back into the mainstream. They’re very distrustful. So you have to build up the relationship over a long period and in the riverbed we’ve had to look at the safety issue and it’s hard to have relationship building in the riverbed area.”

She too knew nothing of the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve or the activities of the police. All in all it was a rather frustrating exchange.

What will happen to the preserve is hard to say. It seems the numbers of the homeless are growing. It seems more trash is coming in than is going out. While there are many dedicated people working for the preserve, there are fewer dedicated people than originally. And it is hard to know what the new council member will do. Simply by appearing to be busy elsewhere, he or she can let it die a slow death.

What the project needs, unfortunately, costs money. It needs another park ranger and it needs additional sweeps by the police, which means more police officers. It also needs all that Mike Kelly discussed and more. At the moment it is no place for a third-grade field trip. Yet the homeless cannot be simply driven off. That solves nothing. After all, there are more than 9,000 homeless in the county. They can’t be dealt with by keeping them on the run. So it was heartening to watch the workers from Casa Raphael and to realize that some had lived in the riverbed and were trying to change their lives. Yet they can’t do it on their own. As Carla Frogner had said about the problem, “Get more programs, get more jobs. It’s not something that a park ranger is going to solve.”

Earlier I mentioned finding an unsigned poem in a campsite called “All Alone.” This is how it went.

  • Sitting all alone, in this home away from home,
  • I think of times of happiness and being loved by others.
  • A kind of love that heals wounds of loneliness,
  • This love of friendship is hard to explain,
  • It seems funny to me how people stay focused on one
  • Subject and remember only half of what they wrote down.
  • I learned as a man on this earth there are certain things
  • You need. Money is the first thing, second is a source
  • Of income, and third, goals. Being all alone in this tent
  • Gives me too much time to think especially when
  • I can’t think of anything. I hate being alone.
  • It sucks. All I’m thinking now is how bored
  • Cave men were. Ha, Ha, Yeah…Fuck that.
  • Sitting here alone I realize how lucky or easy
  • My life is. It may be easy, but if I’m not happy
  • What’s the use in trying to keep it easy? Well,
  • Self, life gets harder every second I live.

A newspaper story gives its readers a sausage slice of time, but obviously time moves on. I visited the Mission Valley Preserve for several weeks in February and as the months passed I wondered what had happened to some of the people I had spoken with and what new developments had occurred.

The first person I talked to again was Randall from Casa Raphael who had been part of the cleanup crew hired by Environmental Services to clean out the debris from the homeless camps. It was three and a half months later. He was still at Casa Raphael and still getting up before 6:00 a.m. to go out and cut brush, remove graffiti, do roadside cleanup and remove debris from homeless camps. But Randall was very different, no longer jittery and fast-talking. He seemed at ease with himself with a sense of what he wanted to do with his life. His mother had died while he had been at Casa Raphael and he had been able to deal with it without needing to take a drink or a drug.

“My family doesn’t want my apologies,” he told me, “they want me clean. They want me to take care of my business. Once you know about recovery it’s hard to go out and use again. It’d be a bummer. And I’m happy now, I’m happy as fuck. There’s nothing tugging at me now. When you were using and down to your last line, you were always worrying about how you were going to get your next one. But I’m pretty peaceful now and it’s cool and hopefully I can resurrect what’s left of me and get on with my life.”

Then at the very end of September I called Mike Kelly of the California Native Plant Society. First I asked him about the new council member, Donna Frye.

“Soon after being elected,” he said, “Donna came to a restoration workshop that the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve hosted and she assured us that she supported the preserve and our goals for the San Diego River. So she made it very clear from the beginning that she thought it was a high priority. In general she’s been very outspoken on any issue to do with water quality and restoring habitat, whether it was Mission Bay or any of the creeks or rivers that flow into it, like the San Diego River.”

Kelly was extremely optimistic about the future of the preserve and spoke of a number of new developments. For instance, representatives of the transit board had offered the Friends of the Preserve the ownership and management of 25 acres of its mitigated land on both sides of the river and bordering the preserve. This is presently being worked out through the parks department.

The supplemental environmental projects that the city funded in lieu of paying the $3.5 million for the sewerage spill have gotten under way, with the first step happening on September 27 when a contract was signed with one of the aerial photo agencies to do a low level flight over the city’s portion of the river in order to begin the mapping.

In addition, state Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, formerly a San Diego city council member, worked with Kelly and several others, including one of the mayor’s senior staff members and representatives of the Storm Water Unit of the City, which is involved with water quality, to put together a package for state money for additional restoration work on the river. Called the Clean Beaches Initiative, this has now been funded to the tune of $1.5 million.

“So we’re talking some serious money. And that’s going to be used to do some additional restoration projects on the river. Now two days ago, coincidentally, [9/26] a press conference was held at several places on the river at which Mayor Murphy and council members Donna Frye, Jim Madaffer, who is upstream in the Mission Trails area, and Byron Wear, who shares part of Mission Bay with Donna Frye, plus Chris Kehoe and Charlene Zettel from the assembly and two members of the county board of supervisors attended. So a lot of politicians and a lot of community groups up and down the river were represented, such as our friends from the Mission Valley Preserve. Of that new money our priority is to start up high in the watershed and use the initial restoration monies to systematically work our way top down. That’s always the best way when you’re dealing with invasive plants and water quality issues. Much better to cure your problems upstream and move downstream. So we don’t know if any of it will be spent in the Mission Valley Preserve. But it’s considerable money and I think we’re going to get a lot done on the city’s portion of the river.”

When I spoke to Donna Frye, she expressed great interest in the river.

“I’ve been working further downstream as far as the mouth of the San Diego River and then further up towards the headwaters, some of the Santee-Lakeside area. So I’ve been working on this for a long, long time so we actually have a connected river. The one thing you don’t want to happen is to have fragmented areas. You want to have something that actually flows all the way from the headwaters down to Ocean Beach. Unfortunately there hasn’t been any sort of continuity and there hasn’t been any sort of unity so it’s been everybody sort of has their own little plans and no one’s really started thinking about what happens further downstream or upstream and started looking at the impact. So for me the whole area is critical, that whole habitat area, that whole river corridor, and until now there’s been nothing that looked at a whole watershed-type management-type plan, which is really why it’s been difficult to get to where it needs to be. It’s going to take a long time, but the interest is there and certainly the funding is there, which it had not been before. The mayor is very, very committed to doing this and so is Councilmember Madaffer who is in District Seven, which is further upstream, and then the cities of Lakeside and Santee are getting involved with some very strong groups of people up there. So it’s going to happen, I know it.”

Donna Frye had no particular thoughts on the Mission Valley Preserve itself, which she saw as simply a piece of the entire river, one of those fragmented areas that eventually would be worked into the entire plan, rather than a preserve or a park with unique problems. Valerie Stallings, on the other hand, had a passion for the preserve. And so for the Friends of the Preserve this would seem to be a mixed blessing: the river will gradually be improved while their particular preserve will be overseen by the needs of the whole. As for the homeless, Frye saw them as a general problem: they caused fires, they littered.

Yet in the Mission Valley Preserve the homeless appear to be decreasing, according to Kelly, and this was in large part a result of the $43,000 Urban Corps training grant that Kelly and the Friends of the Mission Valley Preserve had been able to get.

“I went out in the field with them and helped train the crews,” said Kelly. “First they did simple trash cleanup. They took out two and a half 80-cubic-yard dumpsters of trash in about two weeks of cleanup work. And let me tell you, they could take out another five, but we switched at that point to start to do some training and how to identify native plants and to identify exotic plants and some training in how to remove a variety of the highly invasive plants that are displacing natives, such as the giant reeds. And they’re still working there. This is their third month and this training is enabling them to position themselves to work on other public projects — city projects — and they’re already being hired by the city parks department to work on two other projects.

“And their presence has an effect on the homeless. Whenever they encounter an encampment they call a city ranger, they post it, they clean it up — of course the biggest telltale sign of a camp is the trash. Once in a while you have a homeless person who’s not on drugs or alcohol, who’s just genuinely poor. There was one fellow I knew living in a little tent in one of the canyons who was attending community college and couldn’t afford an apartment — a spotless campsite. And you know what? Everybody cut that person slack. But with the other camps, good Lord, you’ve got trash and you’ve got toxic recycling going on and things that are very harmful to the environment. So the Urban Corps people — about six to eight of them — come across these camps, they get posted, the homeless move out and the Urban Corps team comes in and cleans out the trash.”

But, of course, the only effect they have on the homeless is to move them to other locations and when they are driven from there they often come back to Mission Valley. It made me think of my homeless poet alone in his tent, writing, “Life gets harder every second I live.”

During the summer I also talked to Tony Phillips, a grant writer and part of the administration of Alpha Project, of which Casa Raphael is a part. He told me:

“If I were an agent from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and every year I was reading an application from the City of San Diego for homeless assistance dollars, the first thing I’d say is, ‘By God why are there still 15,000 homeless people in San Diego County?’ And the second question would be, ‘Are those the same 15,000 people?’ And honestly we would have to answer, ‘Yes.’ Our public records document 52 million public dollars spent directly on homeless services in this county alone in 2000. And that much and a half again in private dollars. If you run that back, it doesn’t take you long to add up that in the past five or six years a billion dollars has been spent on 15,000 homeless people. And they’re still there!”

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