Sacramento's homeless issue is back in the spotlight after volunteers on Saturday struggled to clean up the American River Parkway.
"Ninety-nine percent of the trash and debris is generated by the illegal camps," said Will Safford, a Sacramento County parks ranger. "It's an ongoing problem."
Dozens of bags of trash and eight hypodermic needles were collected by volunteers in the cleanup effort organized by the American River Parkway Foundation.
More than 100 volunteers hiked around the trails and riverfront with garbage bags and litter pickers, getting rid of cigarette butts, tents and even a couch.
Dan Hall, president of the foundation's board, stressed that volunteers were not there to "enforce a camping ban" but rather "to preserve the parkway through cleanup."
The effort targeted the stretch of the parkway around Northgate and Del Paso boulevards, an area that has become ground zero for the city's homeless population.
Officials say the recent drive-by feedings by religious groups have exacerbated the problem, providing homeless people an incentive to camp in the park.
Homeless advocate Steve Watters characterized enforcement efforts as "extremely harsh."
"You can't criminalize homelessness," said Watters, director of Safe Ground Sacramento. "Our shelters are overflowing. There's nowhere else to go."
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna acknowledged the homelesss issue but said camping in the parkway is not a solution.
"My constituents tell me they don't feel safe," Serna said. "You have folks pushing shopping carts and dogs off leash."
Few homeless people were spotted in the area Saturday morning, likely because they left after rangers told them about the cleanup, Safford said.
Sunny Phong was pushing a shopping cart through the park looking for recyclables, which is how he makes a living. Phong is a former parkway resident but said he won't be coming back. He described a scene of chaos in the encampments, including chronic drug use.
"It scared the hell out of me," said Phong, 44, who lives under a bridge near West El Camino Avenue.
Serna was pricked by a hypodermic needle during a September cleanup and has used the incident to draw awareness to the homeless issue.
Doctors told Serna it's unlikely he'll contract any disease, given the time the needle was exposed to the weather, but he will still have to be tested in the next few months.
Serna was out again Saturday to help clean the parkway.
In recent months, park rangers have stepped up enforcement of the county's ban on overnight camping, which officials say has lead to a significant decrease of homeless campers.
Still, more than 200 homeless roam the area, according to Robert Leonard, Sacramento County's chief deputy executive of municipal services.
Leonard said crews go out seven days a week to to clean up the park and evict people who are illegally camping. Safford said he cites an average of 10 individuals a day and arrests about two per week usually repeat offenders.
Serna said the cleanup and enforcement efforts seem to be working.
"This is the cleanest I've seen the parkway," he said.