Around 2 p.m. last Thursday, Angel Martinez, a 37-year-old ex-con, was riding his bike through the Woodlake Recreation Area, his tent and other survival gear piled in the wheeled carrier he towed.
Martinez had been ticketed for illegal camping just a few days before, but he was scouting a new campsite along the river for the night, utterly undeterred by the threat of another citation. He says he lives day-to-day, working construction or landscaping, being paid under the table in cash, earning enough to eat, he says, but not enough to pay rent.
If police take him to jail, he wouldn't care. "I wouldn't have to worry about feeding myself three times a day," he says. "I'd have room and board, all that."
Martinez embodies the dilemma county and city authorities face as they try to rescue the American River Parkway from the homeless.
Scores of destitute people sleep in the parkway some nights. Martinez is better off than most. Many are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. The sanctions they face for illegal camping don't deter them.
While more aggressive policing has forced many homeless out of the parkway for now, slowly they are drifting back. Another crackdown will come in a few months, and the cycle will continue.
The needle stick from a discarded syringe that Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna suffered during a recent parkway cleanup awakened the public to the dangers of doing nothing. Fed-up business owners in the River District are beginning to put more pressure on city and county officials, prompting stirrings of a more vigorous and sustained response.
That's a good thing.
Feeling the pressure from anxious neighbors, Loaves & Fishes has expanded its community service project. Many homeless people cited for illegal camping, bicycling at night without a light, or urinating in public pay off their fines by picking up trash at the homeless charity's sprawling complex. Under the expanded program, they will fan out across the River District, doing cleanup between 12th and 16th streets and for the first time along the parkway as well, between the Bike Bridge and the Blue Diamond plant.
City Councilman Steve Cohn and Serna are trying to discourage ad hoc feedings in the area. But the fliers the city has produced to help in that effort read more like how-to documents, with tips on safe food handling.
Weeks ago, Sacramento Steps Forward, the public-private partnership on homeless issues, talked about trying to persuade the many private individuals and churches who feed the homeless to restrict meals to specific times and places and to make sure things got cleaned up after their homeless diners departed.
That proposal does not seem to have gotten off the ground. Why not?
The needed response, of course, is more affordable housing, legal alternatives to illegal camping.
Safe Ground, the advocacy group seeking help for the most desperate among the homeless, has changed its proposal for a city-sanctioned tent city to bare-bones cabins. To win local government support, specifically a site within the city and permits to build, advocates must go further. Safe Ground residents will have to accept the presence of a professional staff to direct their community, heavy social service inputs and strict rules against drug and alcohol use, including random testing.
Will such a living arrangement lure long time illegal camper Angel Martinez off the parkway? It may. Most illegal campers are just looking for a safe, legal place to be.
Safe Ground won't solve the problem entirely, but it offers the promise of low-cost, common sense relief for both the homeless and the beleaguered communities they inhabit.