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June 8, 2012 > Illegal Encampments along our creeks: What can we do?

Illegal Encampments along our creeks: What can we do?

By Richard Santos

According to the Homeless Census and Survey conducted by Santa Clara County in 2007, there are more than 7000 homeless people living in the county and nearly half of them have nowhere to go when night falls. There are many reasons for the prevalence of homeless in our county, but the end result is that these individuals have to find some place to sleep. Many find refuge and set up camp in or near our creeks.

In addition to posing a serious safety issue for both the homeless and other residents trying to enjoy the natural beauty of our creeks, this has presented a serious problem for the health of our watersheds. Illegal encampments result in damage to creek banks, deterioration of water quality and substantial increases in the volume of trash and debris that wind up in creeks and Bay.

Often times, people turn to the Santa Clara Valley Water District with their concerns, but the reality is that the district only owns or has easement rights to 30 percent of the creeks in the county. Legally, we cannot spend taxpayers' dollars on privately owned properties, whether they are alongside a creek or not. The district does, however, have an environmental and stream stewardship commitment and has in place a number of programs to address the issue of creek pollution and trash along our waterways.

Through our Clean, Safe Creeks and Natural Flood Protection Plan, we have a Good Neighbor Maintenance Program which performs hundreds of creek cleanups every year. Last year, our crews removed 983 cubic yards of trash from illegal encampments. But funding is scarce and recent court rulings regarding disposal of the homeless individuals' property have presented challenges of their own.

For the majority of our illegal encampment cleanups, we partner with local governments and public safety agencies to provide security and attempt to link the homeless population with appropriate health and human services. We are contributing to an EPA-funded project that is attempting to empower the homeless themselves to be a part of the solution to creek pollution.

The reality is that this is a complex problem with no easy solution. This is why on May 17, the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors held a special session on illegal encampments and invited a panel of experts from several other government agencies and community organizations. A number of impassioned local residents also expressed their views on this issue.

Everything from fencing off creeks to finding long-term housing solutions was discussed. We all acknowledge that simply removing encampments is not a solution to the problem. After hearing public comments and statements by the panel of experts, the water district board unanimously passed a resolution to direct staff to develop a comprehensive plan to address these complex issues.

The water district board recognizes that regardless of whose jurisdiction these encampments are established in, this is a community-wide problem with action and solutions required by multiple jurisdictions. We are committed to working collaboratively with other government agencies and non-governmental organizations to reduce homelessness and illegal encampments along local creeks.

For more information this subject or our programs, or to watch the board work study session, please visit www.valleywater.org.

As always, I am available for questions or comments as your District 3 representative for the northern areas of Sunnyvale and Santa Clara; Alviso; Milpitas; and the north San Jose and Berryessa communities. Feel free to contact me at (408) 234-7707.

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