A year and a half ago, one of Teri Siciliani’s neighbors called to alert her to a homeless encampment on the back side of Siciliani’s property in the Fox Canyon neighborhood of City Heights. From her house on Auburn Drive, on the east side of the the canyon, the neighbor could see the encampment on the opposite bank of the canyon. From her home on Lantana Drive, on the west side of Fox Canyon, Siciliani couldn’t see it.
“What they do is they build them up underneath the trees,” she says of the hidden encampments, pulling up a picture from a thread on NextDoor.com. The photo was taken from Auburn Drive and shows small glimpses of junk peeking out from the chaparral beyond the storm drain. “You could see a little bit of the encampment back here, in all that brush. This is stuff we can’t remove. It’s hiding them.”
Open space regulations prohibit Siciliani and her neighbors from building, landscaping, fencing, or removing vegetation on the undeveloped portions of their properties that lead down into Fox Canyon and toward the storm drain on the back side of Auburn Street. Fire safety laws require them to trim back the vegetation within 100 feet of their homes, but that’s all they’re allowed to do on their property extensions.
After contacting Siciliani, the neighbor on Auburn Drive called the mayor’s office, and because that particular encampment had spilled into the storm drain, Environmental Services came out and cleaned it up.
But other encampments in Fox Canyon remained and continued to grow.
“If there’s an encampment, they’re going to come back,” Siciliani says. “Even if there’s not an encampment there, they’ll come back and start another one.”
Nearby areas such as Manzanita Canyon and Bobbi Canyon, areas that are technically public property, have been able to form neighborhood watch groups who alert the police as soon as they see tents or other signs of people living in the canyons. On public property, the police code enforcement and homeless outreach teams can take action right away, leaving notice that property left behind will be removed within three days. And then, when the time is up, Environmental Services steps in and arranges the cleanup.
But the particular issue with Fox Canyon is that encampments are spread out on the private property of homeowners living on Lantana Drive, Isla Vista Drive, and Euclid Avenue.
“We’ve identified five, and those are only the obvious ones you can see from Auburn,” Siciliani says of the homeless encampments. “There’s drugs going on. There’s prostitution going on. You name it. They’re sawing down trees, lighting fires for warmth and cooking. Some of them are just crazy. Some of them are dangerous. On Tuesday or Wednesday, some lady came out screaming with her axe. It was probably the same one that screams in the middle of the night. So the police came with two canine units and 10 police cars or something.”
The screaming woman was not arrested, but the police did arrest two criminals considered armed and dangerous.
Unfortunately for Siciliani and her neighbors, incidents like the one she describes have not lead to clearing the encampments out of the canyon. While the police can come out to address disturbances, they cannot begin the process of disbanding and breaking down the encampments on private property. Doing so requires coordinated effort between Homeless Outreach and Code Enforcement Teams, Environmental Services, and other city agencies.
As months went on and the encampments grew, the residents of Fox Canyon became annoyed by how low their community was on the priority list for city agencies. Through her presence on NextDoor.com, Siciliani says she became “a lightning rod” for complaints about the situation.
Wendy Miller, Fox Canyon resident and association co-organizer, says the problem is bigger than the individual homeowners can handle effectively on their own. “I think the city, as they did with the San Diego River, needs to come and do a cleanup of the whole section at the same time,” says Miller. “My sense is that these folks living down there are so determined and so entrenched that it’s going to take years to make that happen at the rate we’re going.”
“Most of these people believe the city should be cleaning it up,” Siciliani says of the canyonside homeowners, “because the push they’ve done in these visible spaces, East downtown, East Village, Barrio Logan, they’ve pushed it onto us individual homeowners as a responsibility to take care of it and deal with it.”
In April, several news outlets reported that the city sent out 33 letters to private and commercial property owners along the San Diego River, offering assistance in cleaning up their property, including the disbandment of dozens of homeless encampments. One outlet quoted Mayor Falconer saying, “We said the City of San Diego will come out over one time and clean it up entirely for free, but after that we’re going to insist that you keep it clean.”
Around that time, Siciliani began to push the city toward a solution for her neighborhood, sending email after email in an attempt to get information about which agencies could help do the same for Fox Canyon. Eventually, she realized that she and her neighbors would have to do the coordination themselves.
One of the first steps was getting a letter of agency from the homeowners, giving the police permission to go on their properties without being called to address a specific disturbance. Not all homeowners were willing to sign off. Another challenge was in getting neighbors to agree to participate in cleanup efforts. Some didn’t believe it was on their property, and others didn’t think it should be their responsibility. So Siciliani had to then pester the city to cite the unwilling property owners for open space code violations.
“The government agencies are waiting on us to get letters of agency from the homeowners for the police department to be walking around back there, but that requires knocking on doors and finding the homeowners to get the letters of agency, which takes a lot of time, and we all work full time,” says Miller. “I feel like we need the city to step in and take over. We need a full-time person to take this project on for it to actually get done.”