In honor of Earth Day, the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) is shining a spotlight on little-known heroes of the San Lorenzo River – members of the Downtown Streets Team (DST) experiencing homelessness who have become dedicated river stewards through a unique partnership.

Every Tuesday at 1 p.m., a handful of DST members gathers on the Riverwalk between Soquel Ave and Laurel St. for weekly habitat restoration work. Led by CWC River Ecologist Kaiya Giuliano-Monroy and Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jane Mio, the team spends two hours removing weeds, spreading mulch, clearing trash, or performing other activities to improve the health of native plants along the river.

Since the River Stewards program kicked off in November 2022, more than 30 DST members have volunteered their time and have collectively made a significant environmental impact on the San Lorenzo River. They have removed 3,000 square feet of highly invasive species such as Himalayan blackberry and ice plant, have picked up 223 pounds of trash, and seeded nearly 1,000 square feet of the river habitat with native plants.

Jane Mio (left) and the Downtown Streets Team River Stewards show off a pile of invasive plants they successfully removed from the San Lorenzo River habitat.

“Without a doubt, the River Stewards have made a huge difference for the river restoration area, and in turn helped greatly to improve the health of the habitats,” Mio said. She has observed program participants gain environmental knowledge, build confidence and self-esteem, and take pride in their work to help the river.

Mio and Giuliano-Monroy note that compared to other restoration volunteers, DST River Stewards overcome many obstacles just to participate. They often have limited transportation, may need to carry their belongings, and need to find access to facilities to clean up after working in the dirt or mud. Many face an array of social and personal challenges, yet still manage to come to the weekly programs, some for months on end.

“They care immensely and surpass all barriers that come with experiencing homelessness to show up for our river, our community, and our planet,” Giuliano-Monroy said of the River Stewards. “They are the most resilient, loving, and kind people I have ever known. Their weekly stewardship has made the river habitat flourish.”

Downtown Streets Team River Stewards trim weeds around a native plant along the San Lorenzo River.

Participants receive a $20 gift card after each volunteer session, but the personal benefits often go much further. Jeff Rogge has been volunteering with the program for about a year. “For me it’s just good therapy, and a chance to learn about nature,” he said. “I’m bonding with the river and learning about flora and fauna. It feels good – good for the brain and the body.”

The program has received funding from a Whale Tail grant from the California Coastal Commission, the County of Santa Cruz’s Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commission, and a grant from the Fox Factory. The effort has its roots in the 2018 DST Natural Resource Stewardship Pilot Program, a partnership of DST and the City of Santa Cruz. Both the current and past programs were initiated to empower those experiencing homelessness with basic skills and knowledge for environmental jobs such as landscaping, nursery work, and restoration and maintenance projects.

The River Stewards program is helping make a reality of CWC’s vision for a healthier and more biodiverse San Lorenzo River that is tended by community members.

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