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Mess at Sixth Avenue Playground cleaned up, tents return hours later

Residents near Balboa Park tried to get the attention of city leaders for months. CBS 8 worked to find out what's taking the city so long to clean up the mess.

SAN DIEGO — People who live around Balboa Park said for months, they tried to get the attention of city leaders to clean up a filthy mess in the park and around the Sixth Avenue Playground. 

CBS 8 went to the city to figure out why it was taking so long for the park to get cleaned up. We called the city councilmember for the area to meet at the park and talk about the problem. Within hours, the park was picked up.

CBS 8 was back out at the park and playground in the early evening, and people had already started to set up camp again.

Sarah Hernholm lives across the street. She hates what she sees happening here and she worries for the children who’d like to play at the playground. 

“I just get concerned sometimes it's going to take the fire, it's going to take a child being harmed. it's going to take something to happen to a minor in the bathroom," Hernholm said.

So she organized her neighbors. She went to community meetings. She attended Zoom town hall meetings. She started an online petition.

“The mayor doesn't know me but his inbox does. I emailed him so many times. I've emailed Whitburn so many times. I was on a Zoom with him. He didn't answer my question,” Hernholm said.

They want the city to lock the park’s bathroom door at night. It’s something she said park crews told her helps to keep the bathrooms clean and keep homeless people from setting up camp and taking over a park.

Andrew Falkiewicz lives near Balboa Park. He and his wife bring their son to the playground, but they are wary. 

“I’ve seen everything from human waste to syringes to drugs and pipes and lighters and people. Lots of people on the ground," Falkiewicz said.

CBS 8 called City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn’s office Friday morning. Friday afternoon, after months of trying to get the city to do something about it, Hernholm sent CBS 8 pictures as crews cleaned up the trash everywhere and somehow got the homeless people who camp there, to go somewhere else.

We asked Councilmember Whitburn if it took a TV camera crew to get the park cleaned up. “I give the residents around here a lot of credit, they've been very frustrated about the homeless situation and they have every right to be," Whitburn said.

CBS 8 asked what the park would like a few days from now, or even next week. Whitburn told CBS 8: “We have to keep working at this. Every day we have outreach workers out here talking to homeless individuals in Balboa Park and around my district and around our city connecting them to shelters, connecting them to services.”

But he said locking the bathroom doors is not the answer.  

“People are going to go and we would rather them use the bathroom than use the sidewalk, than use anywhere else," Whitburn added.

Hernhholm said people living in the bathrooms, or outside of them in a park or on a sidewalk isn’t the answer either. She said people did not live in the parks or the playground or in bathrooms during COVID so she knows the city knows how to provide services and get people off the streets. 

Hernholm said she doesn’t want them going to the bathroom in the park overnight because she wants them living inside somewhere safe. 

“We're advocating for the children, for the unsheltered. We're advocating for what we think is a compassionate approach," Hernholm said.

WATCH RELATED: Using 'hostile architecture' in San Diego as a homeless deterrent (April 2022).