Sacramento County park rangers launched night patrols in the American River Parkway in an intensified effort Wednesday to root out and evict scores of homeless people camping illegally.
Responding to complaints from businesses and residents near the parkway's troublesome west end, officials say they will send out two rangers nightly for the foreseeable future, accompanied by a county social worker, to order campers out of the park after sunset. The rangers will patrol until sometime after 10 p.m.
"We're informing people the park is closed from dusk to dawn, and they have to leave," county parks chief Jeff Leatherman said.
Wednesday turned out to be a day of dueling statements in Sacramento about how to attack the city's long-festering homeless problem.
As rangers beat the bushes on riverside trails, homeless advocates, led by the Safe Ground group, held a news gathering across from City Hall in Cesar Chavez Plaza. They unveiled a $5,200 prototype for a cabin design they say could serve as transitional housing for hundreds of homeless people each year as long as they can come up with suitable places in the region to locate homeless cabin communities.
Homeless advocates estimate 1,000 people sleep outside every night in Sacramento County. Officials guess as many as 200 of them hunker down in the brush along the American River north of downtown between Discovery Park and the Bushy Lake area behind Cal Expo.
Previously, the county employed a two-person ranger team, four days a week, to patrol the lower parkway during the day, evicting and sometimes citing campers. That has proved to be insufficient, county officials said.
With stepped-up patrols, parks officials say they hope to wrest back the lower parkway, cleaning it up and making it attractive again for hikers, bikers and other recreational users.
Dale Jones, who is homeless, said he's already decided to avoid the hassles of the parkway by sleeping on a bus bench near the Capitol while he awaits his name to be called for a shelter bed. "I moved to a better neighborhood," he said.
But another homeless man who sleeps in the parkway said he doesn't intend to leave despite the night patrols.
"Basically, you just try to avoid them," said the man, who gave his name only as Papa T. "I'm not happy about it."
Rangers were to be joined Wednesday by a social worker from the county Department of Health and Human Services to pass out vouchers for hotel rooms and information on shelter beds.
It's not the first time the city and county have stepped up enforcement on the parkway. For the past two decades, law enforcement has periodically launched sweeps targeting the homeless, yet their presence on the parkway has persisted.
County parks chief Leatherman said he recognizes the patrols may cause a cat-and-mouse game with some homeless campers. But he said he believes more consistent patrols maintained indefinitely will have a positive effect. "I don't think (parkway camping) will be eliminated, but I think we will able to make great strides in reducing it."
The patrols elicited sharp words from homeless advocates.
"They are back to employing tactics to criminalize homelessness rather than solving the issue," said Steve Watters, head of Safe Ground, the group that unveiled the prototype homeless cabin Wednesday. "Criminalization is just wasting public money and accomplishes very little."
Watters said he hopes the prototype cabin, which will be on display in Chavez Plaza the next two days, will refocus the spotlight on his group's effort to find spots around the county to build small transitional housing communities for the homeless.
Their cabin, built by Habitat for Humanity, is 10 feet by 12 feet, has insulation and is powered by off-grid electricity. It is a single room, with no water, waste or kitchen facilities.
Watters said the group envisions campuses of 60 to 80 cabins, and would like to land a site in the next two months, likely in an industrial area away from neighborhoods and schools. Under the proposal, homeless people would live there for about six months while receiving counseling, health services, job and life-skills training, before transitioning to more permanent housing and a job.
Many homeless people struggle with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder, advocates said.
In an open letter to The Bee earlier this month, Loaves & Fishes director Sister Libby Fernandez asked for help in finding Safe Ground sites.
"I implore now any private landowner to help us find an alternative place for homeless people to be other than the American River Parkway. Together, we all can be part of a solution for the sake of our Sacramento community," Fernandez wrote.
The stepped-up county parkway patrols elicited concern from business owners near the parkway.
"We do have a concern there will be increased activity at night in our district ... as far as people sleeping in the doorways," said Patty Kleinknecht, head of the River District business and property owners group, which is in the Richards Boulevard area.
That area has a high concentration of homeless people day and night, attracted there by the Loaves & Fishes social services complex and several other service providers.
Recently, that area and the parkway have become the sites of ad hoc food distribution for homeless people, often by private citizens affiliated with religious groups. City and county officials have begun meeting with property owners and social services providers about ways to organize the food giveaways and cut back on trash and litter problems.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said Wednesday that his staff analyzed shelters in Sacramento and determined they have space for 100 to 150 more homeless per night, but do not have the funding, staffing and other resources to accommodate them.
Serna said he plans to announce a fundraising effort in a few weeks, partnering with Goodwill Industries.
"There are shelters that have extended waiting lists," Serna said. "Whatever enhanced enforcement (we conduct) has to be complemented with a real compassion for the people we are dealing with."