Reports of Homeless Encampments Along Freeways Have More Than Doubled Since 2017

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State data uncovered by NBC 7 Investigates underscores an unsettling problem -- reports about homeless people making camp along our highways have more than doubled in the last four years.

In 2017, CalTrans received 407 complaints about homeless encampments along the freeway. In 2020, the number of complaints soared to 876.

“The big deal is these people need help,” said Geneva Lee, whose backyard in North Park overlooks Interstate 805. “And it’s not safe for them to be out in the streets next to the freeways."

"When the pandemic kicked off, it got really bad. I think the thing now is it’s just more dangerous," neighbor William Lyman said.

"Dangerous" and "out of control” is how some North Park homeowners describe an apparent explosion of homeless encampments near the freeway. Homeowners tell NBC 7 the situation is so bad, the city needs to step in.

It's almost impossible to drive down a highway in San Diego County anymore and not see tents, piles of trash and people living along the freeway.

Lee has lived in North Park for more than a decade and said she's never seen it this bad.

“As I’m looking at that, I worry that maybe there’s a body under there," Lee said. "It’s happened before. There’s been bodies that have been found along these encampments. You know people are in desperate need of help. And some of the people are dying out there. That’s what I think when I look at that.”

Last Wednesday police found a body –- a lifeless newborn they say was born inside a homeless encampment near I-15 in City Heights. The medical examiner is investigating the cause of death.

Just down the hill from Lee’s backyard, you can see the orange plastic bag signature of a CalTrans cleanup crew. Lee said they bagged up the trash but left behind the bags, so it wasn't long until people returned.

“Its just not safe,” Lee said. “It’s not healthy, it’s not sight -- it doesn’t look good. This is California. We pay good money to live here and hopefully, we can find the resources to clean it all up and help these people.”

Encampments can also present a major fire hazard. Records obtained from the San Diego Fire Department last fall showed more than 1,000 fires reported with the keywords “homeless,” “transient” and/or “encampment” in 2020 alone.

And some homeowners say the encampments have brough an unsavory crowd into their neighborhood.

 “We’ve had several break-ins,” Lyman said. “I’ve actually had three in my house.”

Lyman said both of his neighbors have also been broken into, and they've seen squatters take over a house for more than a year.

“Yeah it’s definitely, it’s definitely scary,” Lyman said. “What I fear most is the thefts are getting so brazen.”

Lyman's neighbor Joseph Herrera started collecting surveillance videos and pictures of thefts and break-ins in his neighborhood, crimes he thinks were committed by people who live in the encampments by the freeway.

“They’ve stolen my peace of mind,” Herrera said. “It’s not that I can’t afford to buy another bicycle, or my neighbors can’t afford to do the same, but it’s my peace of mind at night, wondering when they’re going to come back.”

He said he reports all of it to police, but the investigations never seem to go anywhere.

“I just don’t understand how we can find them everyday but the police can’t,” Herrera said.

Land along the freeway is state property, not city domain, but Herrera and Lyman say if the city doesn't step up and do something, things will only get more dangerous for everyone.

“It’s very frustrating that all I can do is watch, and document it, and present that, until somebody actually takes notice,” Herrera said.

“This is not the San Diego we all pay our taxes and high mortgages for,” Lyman said.

Mayor Todd Gloria's proposed budget includes nearly $10 million dollars to address homelessness. And just last week, Governor Gavin Newsom came to San Diego to announce a $12 billion plan to respond to the crisis state-wide.

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