There’s a nearly invisible village right in the middle of San Diego. While people are shopping at Fashion Valley Mall, hundreds are living in the brush just steps away.
The latest numbers show 246 people live along the San Diego River--a 41 percent increase from last year.
"It's heartbreaking every time I come out here," said Rob Hutsel, Founder of The San Diego River Park Foundation.
Since 2001, his team has removed more than two million pounds of trash from the river. In Mission Valley, about 96 percent of the trash they find along the San Diego River is related to homelessness.
Hutsel added, "We've rescued people. Unfortunately we've found dead bodies when we've been doing this sort of thing. It's tragic that there are people out here."
As the piles of trash continue to grow, the number of people setting up nearly invisible camps does as well.
Dozens of encampments are among the brush just steps away from the Home Depot off Fairmount Avenue.
And while you're parking your car at Fashion Valley, many are living where you would least expect it. Most are camouflaged from the outside world, like 64-year old Vietnam veteran, Rick Primmer.
Primmer told NBC 7, he chooses to live along the river because it's safe.
"Street people will steal constantly from each other. People in the woods are basically roamers. We just leave everybody alone, and leave our little camps alone," he said.
Organizers remain stumped on how to combat the problem, as they work with the San Diego Police Department in conducting sweeps before major cleanups.
"All we want to do is clean up the river and make it healthy," Hutsel said. "And create parks and trails. But it's more complicated than that."
It is illegal for people to live along the river because much of the land is owned by the City of San Diego. Property owners also sign a letter of authorization, allowing San Diego Police to be on their property and make arrests at any time.
In January, police made 45 felony and misdemeanor arrests.
But they told NBC 7, if there's no crime being committed, their main priority is to provide resources to help get these people off the streets.