Matt Armstrong and Cindi Lapio have been noticing more permanent structures being built in their neighborhood canyons and ridges. Armstrong is a 51-year-old martial arts instructor who cleaned out more than 2000 pounds of trash from the Manzanita Canyon last year. Lapio is a 57-year-old retired contractor who partnered with Armstrong to clean about 1000 pounds of trash from Swan Canyon last month. Both are homeowners in City Heights, but they are now pushing their cleanup efforts further south.
On February 6th, the two showed me some of the abandoned encampments that are harder for them to clean out because of the larger and heavier pieces of metal and wood debris left behind.
The first stop was on Home Avenue, about 50 feet east of the 805 freeway entrance. "If you feel like you need a yank up, grab the handle on this [trash can] and I can pull you," Armstrong said as we ascended a steep hill to the first set of encampments.
"Hey, wassup…is there anyone else here?,” Armstrong asked a woman as we reached the top of a ridge.
The woman replied "No."
We walked about 50 feet and saw trash in a small valley to the left that was opposite from the ridge overlooking the Arco gas station at 4333 Home Avenue down below.
"Who's here?" yelled Armstrong before entering the encampment area.
No one responded, but there was a plush toy tiger guarding the area with a three-foot structure made with metal fences stacked and tied down together. A few feet away, there was another structure made of PVC pipes.
"Look at all of these pill bottles," Armstrong said. "Mike, watch your step you don't want to step on a needle."
The dirt area appeared neatly carved out with a shovel and other tools and smoothed out with a rake. The steps that lead to another encampment below were nicely chiseled, too.
"Look, there's a fire pit right here," Armstrong said as he lifted a pink kiddie stool. He found a Marine Cash debit card that didn't burn in the fire. "Sorry, Dan [the name engraved into the card], I don't think you got paid that day," he said.
Lapio stayed up by the top to pick up trash.
"So, for myself it's not about harassing the homeless," Lapio said, "it's about picking up trash."
When Armstrong's cleaning the canyons and hilltops, he's in high spirits. He always asks if anybody is around before peeking inside a covered area.
A lady came out of a tent-like structure that measured about six feet tall and said, "I understand" to Armstrong and Lapio as they picked up around her area. "See, someone sweeps around here to try to clean up," Armstrong said. “They sweep it into a pile to the side."
After the two filled up their trash bags, we descended and went to the next spot down Home Avenue over the 94 freeway where it turns into a dead end.
"This is behind Costco on Market Street," Lapio said.
The two took me to what Armstrong called "the Shire Hut” or “the Hobbit house." It's a mountain of dry brush that stands about seven feet tall and has a steel fence structure underneath. Someone cut a three-foot entrance into it and they placed a red tarp as a doorway. No one was inside there either, but there was charred wood, cardboard, and an empty water jug.
There were two permanent structures within 50 yards of the hut. One was made of a 10´x10´ collapsible tent frame that had wooden walls reinforced with two-by-fours and carpets draped on the sides. Inside was a two-foot-tall platform made of wood and there was a fire pit close by.
"There's been a lot of fires down here," Armstrong said. “The fire department knows about all of these guys."
Closer to one of the fire debris areas, there was an incomplete four-foot tall, six-foot wide structure made of wood. "We got some wire mesh here, some blankets, and some rug," Armstrong said. “As we were leaving last time, they were putting nails into this, hammering away."
After hanging out with the two, I contacted the Alpha Project, Regional Task Force on the Homeless San Diego, and 211 San Diego regarding the permanent structures and the fire pits that we saw.
Camey Christenson from 211 San Diego returned my call and said that "if [Armstrong and Lapio] see someone or know someone who needs to be connected to resources in the community for housing, we can help [the caller] identify what their needs are and if those resources are available we'll then connect them to those resources."