Ripple effect: how homelessness impacts us all

Posted in: Water


tent and bike by river with bridge in backgroundAs a nation, our population of people experiencing homelessness has steadily increased over the years. While this may seem like a purely social issue completely unrelated to the AEC industry, the effects are actually much more far-reaching. Not only does homelessness have a profound impact on those experiencing it, but this issue can also affect our nation’s waterways and impact our stormwater infrastructure. It’s not just a social services issue—it’s an everyone issue. We need to work together to find workable, real-world solutions that we can maintain for the long term.

This fall, I attended two conferences: one for Floodplain Managers Association and one for California Stormwater Quality Association. Both conferences had a discussion on how a growing homeless population impacts water. As of January 2018, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, California had an estimated 129,972 people experiencing homelessness.

Water impacts

As the number of individuals experiencing homelessness increases in California, keeping flood water at bay becomes more complicated. Humans need water. Because of this, homeless people tend to move toward streams and rivers—and along flood control channels. This can pose potential operations challenges, as people can inadvertently damage the levees that protect our communities. This could also put homeless individuals themselves in harm’s way. As the situation stands, clients must visually inspect flood control facilities once camp encroachments are removed to check that they will still function as designed during the next precipitation event. Any repairs needed will require additional funding to maintain our existing infrastructure.

Stormwater quality is also impacted by our homeless population. Statewide Trash Provisions adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in April 2015 established “statewide water quality objectives for trash and a prohibition of trash discharge, or deposition where it may be discharged, to surface waters of the State.” These regulations do not account for those living on the street with no clear avenue for trash capture, which causes issues for jurisdictions tasked with implementation. When we have people out on the street, we are inevitably going to have trash left behind. This is a human issue that will require human solutions—to resolve this, we must provide real avenues for people to overcome homelessness.

The bigger picture

Homelessness is a national problem that negatively affects millions of people nationwide. The impacts homelessness can have on an individual’s life and well-being are severe. While this is primarily a social issue, the ramifications of homelessness extend far beyond the individual level. Likewise, the solutions must account for the whole picture—it is not enough to address this on a case by case basis. The causes of homelessness are extremely diverse, as are potential solutions. Systemically, things need to change to resolve the problem on a national level.

There are opportunities for social service professionals to partner with floodplain managers and stormwater quality professionals to address homelessness. To really resolve this, we cannot continue to manage the issue in silos. We must bridge the gap and communicate with social services. While people experiencing homelessness live in our communities throughout the year, from a stormwater quality perspective, the best time to reach out is outside of the rainy season. We can work with social services to address how homelessness impacts those who experience it, our water infrastructure, and our nation as a whole.


Megan Leroy

About the Author

Megan LeRoy, PE is a water resources engineer who is passionate about going above and beyond for clients. She excels at melding her professional skillset with an altruistic mindset to better her community. Outside of the water world, Megan volunteers with Girl Scouts and enjoys hiking, backpacking, camping, kayaking, and spending time outdoors.

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