TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - There’s a growing problem for the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, one that’s draining its maintenance budget.
It’s not sediment removal. Instead, it’s a stream of homeless encampments in rivers and washes.
Last year, officials say they “incurred a considerable expense” removing camps and associated debris.
In fact, the final cost for 2019 was twice as much as it was in 2018.
“We cleaned up 204 camps, total,” said Suzanne Shields, the director of the county’s RFCD. “We removed 100 tons of trash and it cost over $200,000.”
With a final price tag of $221,327 in 2019, compared to the $102,344 spent in 2018, Shields said she believes more substance use is contributing to the increasing encampments.
A few homeless folks at the Santa Cruz River near Interstate 10 and Grant Road said they have no options left and they continue to get moved from place to place.
“They give you a certain amount of time, usually it’s 72 hours, to gather all of your things and leave,” said one man, who asked to go by Old Man, a name he is well known by. “Then, whatever’s left, they just throw it away.”
The man says he has been homeless on-and-off for 15 years. He says as soon as he sets down roots, he is uprooted.
Shields says Health Department workers go out on each visit, offering resources and support.
“We want to keep everybody safe so it’s an unfortunate but necessary action,” she said.
Shields said the goal is to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe from needles and human waste. The RFCD also hopes to stop trash from ending up downstream when the river is flowing.
Last year, the removals ranged from $15 to $34,450. Shields says there are many factors involved, including if a demolition contractor had to be called in, if they had to bring in equipment — such as bobcats and dump trucks — and landfill fees.
“This doesn’t include costs for the community resources people, law enforcement, the health department,” she said. “It’s a growing cost to the community to try to deal with these issues. It’s taxpayer dollars.”
While she admits some continue to move back or downstream, Shields says they have had success with getting people into treatment and housing.
As for Old Man, breaking the cycle of homelessness is an ongoing effort. For now, he travels light.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I just take it as it comes.”
Shields says they typically have a reserve fund in place, in case of flooding. So, the money spent on cleaning up homeless encampments did not come out of day-to-day operational costs.