One thing is clear from Sacramento County’s discussion Tuesday about safety and homelessness in the American River Parkway and adjacent neighborhoods: Residents, business owners and homeless advocates are fed up with the status quo.
A day after a new report documented the rapid growth of Sacramento’s homeless population, county supervisors spent several hours discussing options for increasing patrols and debris removal on the 23-mile stretch of the river parkway and in county suburbs such as Carmichael and Arden Arcade. But the Board of Supervisors ultimately delayed a decision until August, when it may have a better grasp of how the county may scrape together the millions of dollars necessary to fund new efforts.
Homeless camps were more visible last winter as heavy rains forced people out of the brush and onto paths and into surrounding neighborhoods. Over the last few months, some cyclists have reported being attacked by dogs or hit by rocks by men they believed were homeless.
Sacramento State professor and frequent parkway user Kevin Wehr told the board he was assaulted less than two weeks ago on the bike path next to the Blue Diamond factory in Sacramento by someone who was obviously mentally ill. The path serves as a popular link between downtown and the American River Parkway.
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“So if I – a fit, 6-foot-tall ... male – am not safe, I really don’t know who is,” he said.
Fear of using one of the county’s premier public amenities colored many of the speakers’ comments. Nearly 30 people spoke during public comment and dozens submitted letters before the meeting. Residents called for stronger efforts in the parkway, more enforcement in neighborhoods and concern that any increase in law enforcement will be ineffective without added shelter space.
Joan Burke, director of advocacy for homeless services nonprofit Loaves & Fishes, said people are living on the parkway because they have nowhere else to go. She and other homeless advocates said the county was too focused on clearing out homeless people without finding services and housing for them.
“Law enforcement does not address homelessness, and it’s extremely expensive,” she said. “I would ask you to consider spending the $5 million to provide additional emergency shelter for homeless people. That money could provide a 200-bed shelter and that would remove people from the parkway.”
Supervisor Phil Serna, county staff and other supervisors responded by saying the county had just approved $6.5 million in new services for homeless people. That includes a full-service shelter that would provide beds for 75 people a night and help homeless people move into permanent housing, but it wouldn’t open until 2018 at the earliest.
Serna wants increased parkway enforcement to coincide with the opening of the shelter.
Supervisors have been hearing anecdotally for months that there are more people on the streets than ever before and the population has expanded from downtown and the parkway into suburban neighborhoods. Released Monday, Sacramento Steps Forward’s biennial point-in-time count of Sacramento County’s homeless population backed up residents’ claims – the number of homeless people jumped 30 percent in the last two years, spread throughout the county. The number of people without shelter and sleeping outdoors rose by a more dramatic 85 percent.
During June’s budget hearings, Serna proposed multimillion-dollar increases for the county parks budget to deploy more rangers and sanitation workers on the parkway. Supervisor Susan Peters countered that homeless campers would move into the surrounding neighborhoods, which have already seen an influx of people on the streets. Supervisor Don Nottoli suggested a compromise, with some money going to the parkway and some to the neighborhoods.
County Executive Nav Gill agreed to report back on three options costing $3 million, $4 million and $5 million. Supervisors also asked him to search for sources of funding for the initiative.
A majority of supervisors appeared to lean toward adding teams of rangers and maintenance staff who focus on illegal camping in the parkway while beefing up the sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Team, which shuts down and cleans up illegal camps in unincorporated county neighborhoods. A second option would have sheriff’s deputies take over illegal camping enforcement in the parkway, in addition to the neighborhoods.
But the funding for the plan didn’t materialize. Gill emphasized that the county won’t know how much additional funding it will have until the books close at the end of July. Supervisors Peters and Patrick Kennedy said they couldn’t vote on anything until they see a financing plan.
“I can conceptually agree with Supervisor Serna on option one, I’m not at the point though where I can put a dollar sign on it because I don’t know where the money is coming from,” Kennedy said. “And I don’t even know how much money we even have because nobody in this room knows that.”