Claudia Alvarez has been homeless on and off for 16 years. In late August, she told two women who discovered her tent among the brush of the San Diego River that she was ready to give up.
With heavy lids surrounding her bright hazel eyes, she shared stories of being humiliated, like when someone threw a drink at her for being homeless.
This wasn’t always the case, she said, families used to visit the area with food.
“Now they look at us like we’re crazy,” she said. “Like we’re some type of vermin.”
Alvarez, 33, spoke about her desire to have a home, a job and to one day see her kids again. She just had no idea how to get there and was ready to give up on living, she told the women. They listened to Alvarez and encouraged her to meet with the social worker they called.
The women are scientists who have worked for years to preserve the ecological health of the river. Sarah Hutmacher is the Chief Operating Officer of the San Diego River Park Foundation and Rachel Downing is a program manager for the Foundation’s Clean River Team.
As San Diego’s homeless population has grown, and increasingly inhabited the San Diego River area, their organization has taken on a new role: helping the communities that exist in the river.
When the Foundation’s Clean River Team started collecting data in 2018 and 2019 along the San Diego River, they were looking for trash. In the team’s quest to clean up, they made an unexpected finding.
“In that process, we came across a lot of people experiencing homelessness as well and a lot of times we were around encampments,” Hutmacher said. “A lot of times we had to walk through camps. We knew a lot of the people that lived here.”
The partnership with the county was born from an idea Hutmacher had to use data collected by the Foundation’s Clean River Team to help outreach workers better navigate the river.
The San Diego River Park Foundation partners with San Diego County and works closely with the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, also known as PATH, to do that work.
On Aug. 22, I joined Downing and Hutmacher as they visited the river to assess the aftermath of Tropical Storm Hilary. In the river, it’s easy to forget that it’s in the middle of the city, the roar from Interstate-805 became background noise.
Residents living in encampments shouted out “hi Miss Sarah” and “hi Miss Rachel.”
Almost everyone we encountered knew Hutmacher and Downing by name. Downing went up to two tents and called out that she was there from the Foundation with snacks and socks. No one answered. Downing tried again.
Suddenly, we heard the sounds of dead branches crunched underfoot and a soft voice saying hello from a patch of brush. Out came a young woman in sweatpants, a T-shirt and plastic sandals.
It was Alvarez.
Alvarez explained she had trouble trusting others who weren’t living on the streets and people trying to help her had always let her down. Despite that, she was receptive to Downing and Hutmacher. She agreed to meet with the social worker.
After hours of mapping the riverbank, collecting data points, and checking in with residents, the team headed toward Mission Valley to get PATH outreach worker Kendall Burdett up to speed on Alvarez’s condition and location.
Burdett went down to meet Alvarez.
The partnership with the county to help address homelessness was not what Hutmacher envisioned for herself when she studied environmental policy in college but her work along the San Diego River has changed that.
“Working with PATH as somebody with a very strict science background has made me a lot more empathetic and compassionate,” Hutmacher said. “It’s made me a lot more comfortable. Two years ago, you would never see me walking into an encampment to be like, hey, everybody, how’s it going?”
Experts on the river, Downing and Hutmacher know the beauty and dangers that exist there including plants, animals, toxic materials and changing water conditions. Now they also know the residents.
Riverbed resident Justin Taylor told Hutmacher one of the ways he prepared for the storm was digging canals to help water flow away from the camp. He still got wet but said not as much as he had in previous storms.
The Foundation duo also asked about residents’ needs and told them that Burdett was coming to the riverbed to check in.
An hour later, Burdett reported that Alvarez was in a shelter and being connected to resources.
The connection between Alvarez and Burdett may not have happened without the San Diego River Park Foundation’s presence that day.
Alvarez’s story isn’t the only one like it.
Hutmacher and Downing said they have learned a lot working with Burdett and PATH about how to approach people, help with basic needs and connect them with resources.
Burdett has seen the direct impact of how partnering with the San Diego River Park Foundation has helped him and his clients. He said some describe Hutmacher and Downing as their guardian angels.
“I hear this often and it is also how we feel about them,” Burdett said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct Sarah Hutmacher’s title. She is the Chief Operating Officer of the San Diego River Park Foundation.