Every District Counts, What One Special District is Doing to Reduce the Pathway of Homeless Encampment Trash to Waterways
Between 2016 and 2017, California has had the largest increase in homeless individuals out of all states. A recent survey in Santa Clara County counted over 7,000 individuals as homeless in 2017, with 74% unsheltered and many living in the riparian areas along urban creeks. The Santa Clara Valley Water District (District) manages 278 miles of creeks throughout Santa Clara County for flood protection and stewardship purposes. In 2016/17, the District removed more than 907 tons of trash and debris from over 400 encampment sites.
Impacts of homelessness on the riparian environment beyond trash and debris, include excavation, vegetation removal, erosion, fire, hazardous materials and biowaste, and impacts to fish and wildlife through poaching and habitat destruction.
The demand on District resources to address encampment clean ups continues to increase and has significantly impacted its budget. Even with a special parcel tax with a dedicated funding for annual creek clean-ups (Santa Clara County Measure B, Safe Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection), the need has outpaced the available funding. The parcel tax allocates funding for 52 annual clean-ups, however, this number has been exceeded every year since Measure B was passed. Of the 15-year plan, 80% of $8 million funds for encampment clean-ups have already been expended.
To address this high level of demand and the overall issue of homelessness in the County, the District’s Board formed a Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee. The Committee works closely to explore alternative funding sources and methods for addressing the issue of homelessness. The work of the committee has included analyzing surplus properties for possible use as permanent housing sites, developing a process to make District rental properties available to the County’s Office of Supportive Housing, and providing funding to nonprofits for clean ups and partnerships. The District Board also approved a new legislative priority last year to support efforts that prevent and reduce homelessness.
The District partners with the City of San Jose in funding Park Rangers to prevent re-encampment along creeks as well as funding the Downtown Streets Team. The Downtown Streets Team is a nonprofit, addressing homelessness by having the homeless volunteer to pick up trash on streets or in creeks, while providing necessities including a stipend, vital health services and case management. The District has contributed over $350,000 to Downtown Streets Team in San Jose. In addition, the District’s grant program provides funding for other organizations such as the Gilroy Compassion Center and nonprofits focused on creek clean ups. District staff is currently piloting other tools including providing dumpsters near homeless encampments and vegetation management. In addition, District staff participates in regional efforts to address homelessness issues, including monthly meetings with Santa Clara County cities and public agencies at the City of San Jose; chairing the Zero Litter Initiative - which coordinates with Valley Transportation Authority and Caltrans; and chairing the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association (BASMAA) trash committee - which has opened dialogue with the local railroads as well as Caltrans on the shared issue of homeless encampments.
The presentation will cover the impacts of creekside encampments on waterways and the District’s activities and collaborative efforts. Addressing this direct pathway of trash to waterways in addition to the stormwater conveyance system and providing regulatory credit for agencies is an important component to improving local waterbodies.
The presentation will be informal with an interactive approach. The conference theme “Connecting the Drops” will be directly addressed, because connecting different types of expertise and collaborating with stakeholders and agencies is critical to addressing the issue of encampments.
Kirsten Struve has over 20 of years experience leading water quality and watershed management programs. She is currently a Senior Water Resources Specialist at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, leading the District’s stormwater program, including addressing trash. Kirsten chairs the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program Management Committee, the Zero Litter Initiative, and the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association Trash Committee. Prior to joining the District, Kirsten worked for the Cities of Palo Alto and San Jose. Kirsten has a Bachelors in Biology from Knox College and a Masters in Environmental Management from Yale University.
Elisabeth Wilkinson has three years of experience in water quality and stormwater management including research, field data collection, and spatial analysis of watersheds and municipal separate storm sewer systems. She is currently a Water Resources Technician at the Santa Clara Valley District where she supports their stormwater program and focuses on trash and homeless encampment challenges in riparian areas. She also has experience with research related to urban and rural stormwater runoff. Elisabeth has a Bachelors in Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning from UC Davis and a Masters in Environmental Studies from San José State University.