Sacramento County park rangers Chris Dameron, left, and A.J. Bennett check tents during a patrol last month along the American River Parkway.

Homeless advocates object to Sacramento County's plan for parkway permits

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 - 9:08 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

A proposal that events involving 50 or more people in the American River Parkway be required to have county permits has homeless advocates – including church groups – up in arms.

They are worried the new requirement would stop them from regularly feeding the homeless.

Among the critics are members of Real Life Church in Natomas, which feeds the homeless every week at Discovery Park. About 20 members of the church attended a hearing on the proposal before the Recreation and Park Commission last week.

"I really oppose anything that puts a restraint on generosity," said Pastor Scott Hagan.

Sacramento County has long struggled with problems arising from the many homeless encampments along the parkway, and recently started patrols to remove illegal campers. Residents who live near the parkway complain about trash and safety, while homeless advocates object to what they call violations of the rights of the homeless.

Complaints by homeless advocates and environmentalists led the county's regional parks director, Jeff Leatherman, to reconsider the permit proposal at last week's meeting. He said he will bring it back to the commission in the next month or two.

As it stands, the proposal would require a permit for activities with 50 or more people at county parks. An activity with 50 to 99 people would need a permit costing $100. An event with 1,000 or more people would cost $1,250.

The county has an ordinance allowing permits for activities, but it doesn't define what events need permits. Leatherman said he wants to clean up the language in his proposal to address concerns from homeless advocates and environmentalists.

Environmental groups, such as the Save the American River Association, objected to the permits, saying they would allow new activities that would cause damage to the parkway. Leatherman said he's not considering new activities, just adding language so existing ones can be permitted.

The proposal that might prove most difficult for homeless advocates is the one that would limit groups to four permits a year. Leatherman said the limit is intended to prevent groups from monopolizing the parkway and other areas.

He said, however, that such groups could use picnic areas without a limit on permits.

The county needs better definitions for permits so it can recoup costs and better manage events, Leatherman said.

Leatherman said feeding events for the homeless affect the parkway, including Discovery Park. Nonprofit groups and churches feed the homeless weekly on the parkway, bringing anywhere from several people to several hundred people and creating a lot of garbage, he said.

Any proposal would go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district includes the parkway, has been active in trying to resolve problems resulting from homeless encampments on the parkway.

"I don't think this is some kind of end around to try to get at the homeless," he said. "The ad hoc feedings at the parkway are destructive."

He said the homeless feedings create too much trash at the parkway. He also said they create safety risks because they sometimes take place on offramps.

But any attempt to stop churches from feeding the poor could run into constitutional challenges, said Matt McReynolds, an attorney at the Pacific Justice Institute.

A conservative legal organization that fights on behalf of churches and private schools, the institute has taken up the cause of Real Life Church in the homeless feeding issue. Previously, Pacific Justice Institute represented a homeless ministry in Placerville in its fight with the city over a permit it needed to operate.

"Church groups like this have been reaching out to the needy for thousands of years before the government ever got involved," said McReynolds. "You can't put a crimp on kindness."

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