Picking his way along the banks of Buena Vista Creek on a recent morning, James Conley swept his hand across an expanse of trampled and uprooted vegetation mixed with a moldering mulch of trash.
Discarded shoes, broken bits of furniture, pushed-over shopping carts. Everything mixed together in a kind of refuse soup in a low-lying area sandwiched between Hacienda Drive and Highway 78.
The 68-year-old former pipe fitter said he lived in this stretch of dense vegetation for maybe a dozen years before a city program helped him sign a lease with two other roommates who were in a similar situation.
But walking through what used to feel like a secret garden looking for his wife, Conley said it is sad to see how much damage has been done by those who pitch tents and sometimes even build makeshift homes anywhere they can find a chunk of ground.
“The environment’s what they’re killing. This used to be so thick and lush you couldn’t walk through it hardly,” Conley said. “It was like being in a jungle. And now they’ve got trails all over it, steps cut in the banks, I mean, it’s just gotten crazy down here.”
The current state of the creek bed, and other sensitive areas in the city, spurred the Vista City Council to approve a zoning amendment that allows code enforcement officials to start citing people who litter, light fires, go to the bathroom, build structures or take other actions that degrade the natural state of areas the city deems “biological preserves.”
Previously, explained Tony Winney, an assistant city manager who oversees Vista’s code enforcement division, the city had no way to cite those whose actions degrade biological resources.
“This really just provides the city with an additional tool that we have not had before,” Winney said.
During an interview in early February, he added that there were no plans for the city to change its normal code enforcement practices now that the new rules are in place.
“We operate on a complaint basis,” Winney said. “If we get complaints from residents, we go out there and check it out, and we have no plans to change how we operate.”
According to the city attorney’s office, citations would start with a warning. Subsequent violations would bring misdemeanor fines of $100, $250, $500 and $1,000.
It’s not clear whether any citations have been made since the new provisions took effect on Feb. 22. When asked for an update on enforcement, the city’s communications officer said Wednesday that such information required a public records request.
But at the moment, Vista, like most Southern California cities, is locked in an intractable position. There is a need to curtail any activity that dumps trash and human waste in shared public spaces. But writing tickets just doesn’t work. Not only are those who receive the tickets generally unable to pay them, but scouring all squatters from one area just pushes them to another.
Everybody involved clearly knows this and yet, the problem in Vista, especially down around Buena Vista Creek, has gotten bad enough that many say they believe the time has come for some kind of action.
Council members who recently toured some of the affected areas said they are not calling for a crackdown, but must act when so much human waste and trash are changing landscapes in ways that are difficult to reverse.
City Councilman John Franklin said Friday that he has long felt a sense of moral outrage that California simply looks the other way in these out-of-sight areas. On a recent visit to the Buena Vista Creek area which, ironically, abuts a BMW dealership, Franklin said he met a woman who was six months pregnant and living outside. Two people in their 20s, he said, were covered in sores from drug use and surrounded by bottles of their own urine.
“We’ve got people living in subhuman conditions, and that shouldn’t be happening,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to develop whatever resources are necessary, and we have got to find a way to help people who are chronically drug addicted.”
Exactly where that help will come from is not clear at the moment.
The city’s homeless outreach teams already visit locations where the homeless are known to live, offering services such as drug treatment. But it’s also clear that there is not enough available shelter housing. Vista does not operate a men’s shelter within its borders.
Greg Anglea, director of Interfaith Community Services in Escondido, said Haven House, the nonprofit’s 49-bed transitional shelter, is perennially full.
“For men, the average wait time to get in is about for to five months,” Anglea said. “That’s not a wait that gives a person experiencing homelessness a lot of hope.”
At the moment, he added, Interfaith has not noticed any influx of newly-disrupted homeless exiting Vista due to the city’s new environmental rules. Capt. Greg Rylaarsdam, the ranking officer in charge of the Vista Sheriff’s Station, said that’s because there is no plan to conduct sweeps or other disruptive maneuvers that would cite large numbers of people living in out-of-the-way places.
Flagrant violations, like dumping a bucket of waste right into a creek with an officer looking on, he said, would probably elicit a ticket. But a big ticketing campaign, he said, simply wouldn’t work.
“If there is a new tool in the toolbox, we may use it, depending on what the specific set of circumstances are,” Rylaarsdam said, “but we also know that, as a practical matter, this is not a problem we can solve with arrests and citations.”
With a shortage of shelter beds, and rents rising without end, emptying the creek bed is going to require a more holistic approach that leans on drug treatment plans and more affordable housing, leaders say.
In July, the city spent nearly $60,000 to hire HG Consulting Group, a San Diego-based firm that specializes in “in-depth stakekholder and public engagement facilitation” to develop a plan to address homelessness. The group is scheduled to present a report to the council in June, and Franklin said plans are in the works for a series of public forums to discuss what should be done.
“In Vista, we don’t have all of the answers today, but we’ve elevated this to be one of our top priorities, and we intend to offer some real solutions,” Franklin said.
When they voted for the new zoning rules, the council cited mounting pressure from state and county water quality regulators regarding the amount of human waste that has been flooding creeks and streams throughout Southern California.
Dave Gibson, executive director of the San Diego Water Quality Control Board, said that a new push is underway to increase water quality in local rivers, streams and creeks.
The water board recently ordered all cities through which the San Diego River flows to formally quantify how much effluent is added to the waterway by leaking sewer pipes and how much comes from people dumping waste in the river. Once those sources are understood, he said, the board will expect action.
“Just because the solutions will be hard, doesn’t mean we want the municipalities ignoring it,”Gibson said. “The board is not going to be sympathetic to ‘it costs too much.’”
And don’t expect this kind of action to stay down south.
“This is not an issue that is just about the San Diego River,” Gibson said.
Back down at Buena Vista creek, James Conley moves along the dirt footpaths cut into what he once saw as his own slice of paradise, the rain-swollen creek burbling through soggy plastic bags.
Though he said he knows there are many reasons why people end up living outside, he said he understands that this pattern can’t continue. City plans to turn the expanse into a park, he said, are overdue.
“You know, the sad thing is, it could be beautiful down here,” Conley said. “There was a time, when there were just four of us living down here, you could walk all the way from one end to the other and not see much trash at all.”