The Santa Ana River has faced its fair share of issues with storm drainage and industrial pollution in the past.
But it is now facing one of its most difficult challenges yet: an accumulation of homeless encampments.
Chicago filmmaker Kaitlin McMurry’s “The Other Side of the River” seeks to spotlight the waterway’s current state and how community organizers are working to restore the natural feature that gives Riverside its name.
“We need to take care of this beautiful river,” McMurry said. “We also need to make sure that we’re taking care of the people who live along the river. Most of them are very amazing, special people.”
Ward 1 Councilmember Erin Edwards brought a crowd of residents and local elected officials together at Martha McLean-Anza Narrows Park on June 5 for a special viewing of the 14-minute documentary and a conversation on what it will take to “put the river back in Riverside,” as Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson puts it.
“The Other Side of the River” follows the story of Boston, a woman who lives in the river.
Boston lost her job as a roofer during an economic downturn and found herself trying to sleep behind a dumpster. Frightened, she made her way to the Santa Ana River, where she camped out alone for several months.
“It was nice camping here,” she says in the film. “No one bothered me.”
But crowding began as more homeless people moved out of the city and sought refuge in the riverbottom’s riparian forest, which is being cleared to make room for makeshift shelters.
A collaborative effort between Inland Empire Waterkeeper and the Rivers and Lands Conservancy called Clean Camp Coalition has established a trash pick-up in the riverbottom intending to keep the area healthy.
But according to Megan Brousseau, former IE Waterkeeper associate director, the accumulation of trash, habitat destruction and bacteria from feces and urine continue to threaten the environment.
“All of those are kind of culminating in a public that is either angry about it or has used it as a reason to just discard the river,” she says in the film. “We’ve really reached a crisis point here.”
To McMurry, though, it is not simply a matter of clearing the river of trash and homeless people. Getting to know Boston during the documentary’s creation reminded the filmmaker of the humanity of those living in the river.
“Every person has a story,” McMurry said. “Not everyone is just lazy and doesn’t want to work. Some people have really experienced some trauma and there’s so many reasons why they’re living along the river.”
The Santa Ana River: then and now
Flowing nearly 100 miles from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach, the Santa Ana River is Southern California’s largest — and it has a storied history.
Spanish expeditioner Juan Bautista De Anza and his band of 242 men, women and children crossed the river during a 1776 voyage to Northern California at what is now Martha Mclean-Anza Park.
Lock Dawson began work on the river 15 years ago under the direction of then Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge and spearheaded a tri-county river conservancy partnership.
But as a result of increasing homelessness, it is estimated there are between 200-800 people living in 187 encampments along an 8-mile stretch of the river.
According to Rachael Hamilton, outreach coordinator for Rivers and Lands Conservancy, seven tons of trash were collected from the homeless people in 35 weeks.
An act as simple as showing up consistently to provide trash bags has built the trust that allows outreach workers to ask homeless people if they would be willing to be connected to housing services, Brousseau said.
The river was a recreational getaway for Riverside children and families in the 1960s when the work of activists Martha McLean and Ruth Wilson kept the state from channelizing it.
Brousseau, now the president of Inland Empire Kids Outdoors, is trying to rebuild those relationships between children and their hometown river.
“What I think it gives our kids is a pride of place,” she said. “What I try to give them is roots and wings. I want them to feel so at home in nature that they’ll feel at home anywhere in this world.”
The lawmakers present at the film’s premiere agreed on one thing: more work is needed.
Edwards introduced a $1.4 million plan to the City Council in December to move homeless people out of the river in the wake of increased wildfires in the area. But that proposal failed to pass as her colleagues argued the Measure Z tax and COVID-19 emergency relief money used in her plan would be better spent on helping local businesses survive the pandemic.
The Ward 1 councilmember was not discouraged by the plan’s rejection, though.
“It just was a spark to do something bigger and better,” she said. “We have more partners on board now, we have more funding secured now, we have more momentum now.”
Since December, Riverside’s Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention funding received an additional $775,000 for work on the river and a team effort is growing.
Karen Spiegel, District 2 County supervisor, is starting a homeless collaboration composed of elected officials and departments within her district’s five cities, all of which touch the river at some point.
“There are pieces done in all those areas, but there’s big gaps,” she said. “We are working on those gaps and trying to make that full connection.”
One of the goals, Spiegel said, is to offer more stable wraparound housing and behavioral health services to the people who live in the river.
In the film, Brousseau argues more groups of nonprofits are needed to replicate the Clean Camp Coalition in the gaps and stop the bleeding of trash into the river. She encouraged residents to reach out to the organizations doing the work and ask about what they can do to help.
“It’s not a 10-year opportunity,” she says in the film. “The opportunity to save the water quality and keep this river safely and legally accessible to children and families is finite.”