Jeremiah Lehman, P.E., is Northwest regional regulatory manager for Contech Engineered Solutions. Lehman can be reached at [email protected]
Oct 29, 2019

Homelessness and Urban Water Quality

The relationship between pervasive homelessness and urban water quality.

Have you ever counted your blessings as you pay your utility bill?

I moved to the Portland, Ore., area from the Southeast nearly 20 years ago, and it is here that I have found my passion and profession as a stormwater engineer. Like many eager, young transplants from elsewhere, the allure of the West Coast beckoned me hither with promises of something better — in my case, a thriving environmental industry and a respite from the humidity and the hurricanes of my beloved Gulf Coast. Naturally, there were many other notable differences to which I needed to adjust, including an introduction to every variation on Thai food coupled with a dreadful nostalgia for a good catfish po’boy.

One of the more somber societal differences that struck me was the presence of pervasive homelessness. In the city parks, under highway overpasses and along the greenways and bicycle trails lived a community of people sheltering in tents and makeshift structures. I was not used to this.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I am not writing to present a unique solution to this systemic problem, nor to deliver some opinionated anecdote to a captive audience. The reality is that chronic homelessness is a societal issue with roots in difficult and locality-specific subjects, such as housing costs, employment, education rates and effective support for crises of mental health and substance abuse. The impacts are broad, and they evoke passionate emotions, but this is a blog about storm water issues. 

I want to focus on the relationship between pervasive homelessness and urban water quality. People experiencing homelessness often have no access to shelter, safe drinking water or sanitation services, and homeless encampments are commonly established along the sides of streams and rivers on the periphery of urban areas. Storm water runoff flowing through these sites leads to receiving body impairments associated with excessive trash, human waste and drug paraphernalia, such as used hypodermic needles. The situation is serious, and municipal storm water programs are scrambling to find a solution.

I recently attended the CASQA conference in Monterey, Calif., where this topic was the focus of well-structured discussion sessions amongst at least one hundred private consultants and public works managers. This was not the first time the organization concentrated on the subject, and the level of attendance was not surprising, considering that California has the highest homeless population of all the States. Even more importantly, the percentage of homeless individuals who are unsheltered is disproportionately higher in West Coast cities. Over the course of the conference, some common threads quickly came to the surface. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s report to Congress last year shows that the population of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. steadily decreased from 2007 to 2016. Since then, however, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of unsheltered people. This comes as a recent wave of court decisions have ruled against municipal actions banning camping in public spaces, culminating in a federal ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case against the city of Boise, Idaho. Essentially, the ruling stated that if a city cannot supply adequate shelter space, then a ban on camping in public violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The CASQA attendees cited this ruling as a direct cause in the increase in semi-permanent public encampments, occurring at the same time that MS4 permittees are being required to meet more stringent effluent requirements, such as trash and bacteria TMDLs. Last month, the EPA sent a letter to California’s governor, tying the homeless crisis to concerns that the State is failing to enforce the Clean Water Act.

This puts municipal stormwater programs in a particular bind. With funding sources heavily dependent on utility rates and development fees, public works departments are not well equipped to tackle the scope of the problem. Managing urban surface waters is the domain of engineers, hydrologists and civic administrators, not public health experts and social workers. I heard many voices expressing both compassion and exasperation. How can we meet our receiving water quality goals when there is an entire neighborhood without access to sanitation residing directly upstream of our municipal outfall? Cleaning up a homeless encampment involves not only the removal of potentially hazardous waste in areas that are difficult to access but typically requires the presence of law enforcement. Then there is the consideration of private property—how does one distinguish between trash and someone’s personal belongings? Plus, sufficient resources must be available to provide shelter to those displaced to avoid a costly lawsuit.  

One of the most compelling case studies is that of Orange County, which removed a massive encampment from the Santa Ana River, a channelized area used for flood protection. Up to 1,500 people were estimated to be living along several miles of the channel, locally nicknamed “Skid River,” and homeless advocates sued when the county tried to dismantle the camp, resulting in an 18-month legal battle that was settled this summer. The county’s efforts were extensive: dumpsters and sharps containers were provided to encourage self-policing, community support advocates were sent out to assist individuals with substance abuse or mental health disabilities, miles of fencing and signage were erected or replaced to enforce trespassing codes, and ultimately, hundreds of people were placed in motels for a 30-day period while outreach workers organized long-term housing accommodations. All of this was at county expense. OC Public Works deployed cleanup crews, reporting the collection of over 400 tons of trash and debris, over 5,000 lbs. of hazardous waste and nearly 14,000 needles. How many citizens connected these dots when paying their utility bill?

Given the statistics referenced earlier, it may be easy to dismiss the crisis as a regional problem of the Western states. Or we may be tempted to compartmentalize the issue and assume that charitable organizations and public welfare agencies are solely responsible for mitigating its impacts. But if the recent trends continue, the population of unsheltered individuals will only increase in visibility and prevalence. Is the degradation of public water quality the most urgent symptom of pervasive homelessness? Likely not to the individual men, women and children experiencing it, who as of this year exceed one half million across the country. However, it may be the connection that ties it most directly to the rest of the community, in the form of higher local taxes and increased utility rates.

After the conference concluded several days later, these conversations rang out to me as I returned to my cozy little house via a street along a public park, where several tents were pitched in the gloomy evening drizzle. 

Jeremiah Lehman, P.E., is Northwest regional regulatory manager for Contech Engineered Solutions. Lehman can be reached at [email protected]