Crews of homeless people who have been blamed for trashing neighborhoods, businesses and parkway property around the Loaves & Fishes charity in downtown Sacramento will be put to work beginning next week tidying up areas where they congregate.
The new program is a response to a rising number of complaints about the impact of hundreds of homeless men and women who get meals, counseling, legal help and other services at the sprawling complex on North C Street, said Loaves & Fishes executive director Sister Libby Fernandez.
"We absolutely have been feeling the heat, especially during the past few months," Fernandez said. "We would like to be part of the solution, but what can we do with the limited resources that we have? Right now this is what I can do, help the neighborhood get rid of the trash."
Some are skeptical about the motives and potential impact of the project. "It's a PR move and worse," said North Sacramento developer Robert Slobe, whose family once owned 440 acres in what became the American River Parkway.
Slobe called the proposal "a scam" and predicted it will have little or no impact on the underlying problem of homeless campers who have turned portions of the parkway into dangerous dumping grounds.
Others said they appreciated the effort.
"I'm going to welcome any help and hope that it is something that truly does make a difference," said Patty Kleinknecht, who leads the River District business and property owners group in the Richards Boulevard area. The area has one of the city's highest concentrations of services for poor and homeless people, which has created friction between groups that serve the homeless and businesses that have to deal with the consequences of their presence.
"I am not going to criticize someone doing something to help clean up the area, because things are very difficult right now for businesses here," Kleinknecht said. "We'll have to see how things move forward in terms of creating good will."
The project will operate through the Loaves & Fishes legal clinic, which arranges for homeless people charged with misdemeanor crimes including trespassing, illegal camping and urinating in public to perform their community service at the homeless services complex.
Starting Monday and every weekday, Fernandez said, crews of 10 to 15 people wearing bright yellow vests will venture outside of the facility to the River District neighborhood, parts of the American River Parkway and other areas to collect garbage, clean sidewalks and pull weeds.
Councilman Steve Cohn is the political force behind the project, which also is backed by the nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward group and several neighborhood associations.
Cohn gathered business leaders, neighborhood groups and advocacy organizations together several months ago to address complaints about homeless men and women causing trouble and leaving messes in the areas where they spend their days and pitch their tents.
"Everyone agrees that the current situation is unacceptable, particularly in terms of cleanliness and safety," Cohn said. "This is not an attempt to solve homelessness in our region. We're focused on making the River District and adjoining parkway clean and safe."
The trash problem is "on a peak cycle" in the lower American River Parkway, a favorite spot for illegal campers, said Sacramento County regional parks director Jeff Leatherman.
Along the parkway between Discovery Park and the Campus Commons neighborhood, county crews collect about "20 to 40 yards of trash a day" left by campers rousted by park rangers, said Leatherman. Volunteer groups and probation crews also do regular cleanups, he said.
Not only is the trash an eyesore, he said, but it carries the risk of imperiling the natural environment, including wildlife that inhabit the area.
"For whatever reason, we're on a peak cycle right now," Leatherman said. "We clean up one area, then two weeks later have to go back and clean it up again. We are in a perpetual cycle that won't stop until we no longer have illegal camping."
In the meantime, he said, "I think there is always value in someone helping us deal with the problem."
Fernandez said staffing and equipment for the new program will cost about $1,500 monthly, and the first three months will be covered by an anonymous donor.
Organizers hope that businesses in the area will eventually chip in.
"It's a sensitive issue," said Cohn. "They already pay their taxes, they're not making the messes and they don't think they should have to pay to clean it up. But maybe once they see it working they'll feel differently."