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.”
And then there’s the issue of who’s going to pay for the cleanup if it ever happens. While there may be cheaper routes than hiring a professional cleanup company, they may not be the safest choices.
“This should not be handled by some guys from Home Depot,” Siciliani says. “Even if the people aren’t there, the site is dangerous. There’s issues of Hep A, needles, and that kind of stuff.”
In mid-October, Siciliani contacted Urban Corps to come out and assess a single encampment on the property of her neighbor to give an estimate of the cost to clean it up. They determined it would require four 40-foot dumpsters and cost the homeowner $4080.
According to an email sent to Barbara Lamb by community organizer, Linda Pennington, Sam Lopez of Urban Corps had agreed to clean up the camps on Hodo’s property and that SDPD’s Sergeant Heller would help out.
Forty minutes later, Barbara Lamb of Environmental Services Department responded with an email that said, “All, I am sorry to rain on your parade, but City resources are prohibited from abating on private property. Urban Corps is not available to assist you in this capacity under their contract with [Environmental Services Department]. If anyone wants to hire them under a private arrangement, that is between you and Urban Corps.”
It had only been six months since the City of San Diego sent out a triumphant official press release on April 10 trumpeting the cleanup initiated by Mayor Faulconer’s Clean SD that offered cleanup assistance to 33 property owners along the San Diego River.
Siciliani asked if Lamb would at least provide the $1200 for the dumpsters, and the response was that a curbside pickup was all she would do.
“You know what that means? That the cleanup crew is going to haul the shit up to the street, and then Environmental Services is going to come and clean it up?” Siciliani says. “This is just stupid at this point.”
But she pushed on anyway, and continued to send emails and otherwise pester Lamb and other city employees. On Friday, November 9, Eric Young, the City Heights Community representative from Mayor Falconer’s office sent an email apologizing for poor communication and promised movement the following week, coordinating between Fox Canyon community leaders, Lopez from Urban Corp, Barbara Lamb, and San Diego Police Lieutenant Corissa Pich.
“Lastly,” he wrote, “we will plan a coordinated day of the community’s choice that works congruent with city’s availability for a curbside cleanup and SDPD.”
On Tuesday, November 13, Siciliani responded with an email informing Young, Pich, Lamb, and Sadler of her tentative appointment with Lopez for the 16th to walk through the canyon to give estimates of the cleanup for all cited properties. She requested police presence.
“Our objective here is to attempt to get all these camps cleared out, the homeless relocated to services, and give owners the opportunity to use the promised curbside cleanup to mitigate some of the costs.”
On Thursday, November 15, she had to cancel the appointment with Lopez because she still had not heard back from anyone at Environmental Services.
“Environmental Services is extremely dysfunctional,” Siciliani says. “Every time we’ve tried to make progress, they’re the link that doesn’t work.”
The following morning, however, she did get a call that a representative from Environmental Services would be there. So she sent out an email that the meeting was back on. Code compliance officer Thomas Sadler, Sergeant Heller of neighborhood policing, and Kier Klingengberg from Urban Corps joined community members for a walk-through of the area.
Since then, according to Miller three families whose properties were cited have begun to clean up what they can on their own.
“Meanwhile, the homeless encampment, they had walls and a whole structure back there behind [one of the properties],” Miller says, “they picked up all their generator and walls et cetera, and have moved further down behind Isla Vista Drive now.”
Siciliani likens the process to “whack-a-mole,” and both women believe the city needs to step in and take the same all-at-once approach that was taken to clean up the San Diego River. And since the November 16th walkthrough, there are some signs that Fox Canyon is now on the radar, and others signs that maybe it’s not.
On Tuesday, November 27, Barbara Lamb attended the Mid-City Homeless Coalition meeting for the first time that Miller can recall. But that same day, at the Fox Canyon community meeting, also for the first time, there was no rep from Georgette Gomez’s office.
“It’s like, ‘Yes, we’re with you,’ and then you don’t see them again,” Miller says.
On Tuesday, November 27, another fire broke out in the Fox Canyon. There was “Lots of smoke when I called it in at 9:00,” one neighbor texted another. “Fire showed up and several police. I hosed down my area while I called it in. Someone from the camp hollered out an apology.”