The first time I was accused of “hating” the homeless was nearly a decade ago when I wrote my first column about how the American River Parkway was being decimated by homeless campers.
Not much has changed since then. Every summer, in what is now a wretched rite of passage, huge swaths of Sacramento’s urban forest go up in flames. These blazes often spark from illegal campfires started in illegal campsites.
In 2015, 15 fires broke out between Discovery Park and Campus Commons between late May and late August alone. One fire jumped the Garden Highway, threatening an apartment complex and causing terrified residents to douse their roofs with water hoses.
Fire isn’t the only safety issue on the parkway. It can be dangerous to ride your bike on trails such as the one from the I-80 crossing near Cal Expo to the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers at Discovery park. In recent weeks, two cyclists were attacked by pit bulls on the lower stretch of the parkway. The dogs belonged to homeless campers and were roaming free, not on leashes, in violation of parkway rules. One cyclist was bit in the face.
And then there’s the refuse. In his office desk, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna keeps a hypodermic needle in a plastic water bottle as a reminder of when the same needle stuck him in the hand nearly five years ago as he joined other volunteers to clear loads of trash left by homeless campers. The needle was one countless remnants of substance abuse you’ll find on the parkway. For months, Serna lived with the fear that he would contract HIV or hepatitis. After an intensive 21-day course of medication and six months of blood tests, Serna learned he was OK.
“It was surreal from the uncertainty,” he said recently. “When I show the needle to visitors to my office, it triggers looks of disgust.”
You get all kinds of reactions talking honestly and publicly about the health and safety hazards caused by homeless campers in the parkway, including ire from homeless advocates and others who, more often than not, live far from the dangers experienced by anyone residing adjacent to what should be a natural jewel of our city.
I don’t hate anybody or anything in my life, but when the county of Sacramento spends only 2 percent of its $615 million general-fund budget on parks, it sends a clear message. It says our community accepts that the parkway is a human dumping ground. It says that, as a community, we would rather not be reminded of what is really happening on the river because it makes us uncomfortable and defensive. If the homeless are out of sight, they are out of mind – fires, dog attacks and needles be damned.
After years of getting nowhere on this issue, Serna wants the county to finally commit real resources to protecting the parkway. He wants it to at least double its $13 million parks budget, which would allow for the hiring of more park rangers. The county currently employs only 24 rangers to cover the thousands of acres of parkway. Campers move constantly, often setting up sites in the brush off the trails, and rangers simply are spread too thin to properly enforce a simple ordinance: It’s illegal to camp on the parkway.
The county will debate its budget this month. “I believe we should start the conversation at no less than double the ($13 million) budget, given the vastness of our parkland inventory and the current limits on ability to maintain and patrol it,” Serna said.
Serna’s proposal promises to be a political fight because if you double the funding for parks, you take millions away from other programs. It’s also a politically radioactive issue because homeless advocates and residents alike will rightly ask the same question: If you move homeless people out of the parkway, where will they live?
This always has been the question with no answer. And because there has been no answer, the problem never gets fixed – and, in fact, gets worse.
So where would they live? The county also is considering spending $8.6 million over three years to fund a new full-service shelter for homeless people. The money would cover capital costs and operations for a shelter where pets would be accepted. A ban on pets often is an impediment to getting homeless people into housing.
“If we create a shelter that accepts pets, partners and possessions, it makes it easier for folks to come off the river and say, ‘Yes, I’ll accept the help you’re offering,’ ” Serna said.
Immediate shelter options are an increasingly urgent topic. Over the winter, the city and county partnered to open short-term “warming centers” after two men died on the steps of City Hall. But those closed and had a mixed response with some people concerned they’d drawn more homeless people into downtown and then left them on the streets after the shelters reached capacity at night.
The city in recent months has been considering its own alternatives. Mayor Darrell Steinberg is pushing a plan that would allow churches and community centers to take in small numbers of homeless people if they wanted to. Councilman Allen Warren wants a tent city in his North Sacramento district that potentially would target some of the same parkway homeless Serna wants to reach.
“Showing compassion for homeless people and the parkway aren’t mutually exclusive sentiments, nor should that be reflected in our budget,” Serna said.
Right now, though, they are mutually exclusive. Serna’s push to help the parkway deserves to be enacted, if only to combat a communitywide culture of denying that the river and parkway is where we dump our homeless. As a city, we can do better to help people such as Samuel Cunningham, whom I met this week when walking the parkway with Serna.
Cunningham, 35, is a former drywall worker who lives near the river. He became homeless after a back injury prevented him from working and found temporary refuge at the Union Gospel Mission near the railyard before heading to the parkway. He got meals at nearby Loaves and Fishes, the city’s massive homeless charity.
He said he once lived on the West Sacramento side of the river but won’t go back because authorities there strictly enforce a no-camping ordinance. “They don’t play,” he said. “They arrest you and throw your belongings in a dumpster. They held me for six hours and then released me in Woodland in a beautiful pale blue jumpsuit and flip-flops.”
He said it took him nine hours to walk from Woodland back to the parkway. “The police in West Sac have told me to go to Sacramento because there is nothing there for me (in West Sacramento),” he said. “They have zero tolerance. People are more compassionate on the Sacramento side of the river.”
Cunningham said he’d love to drive for a ride-sharing service but doesn’t have a car. His credit is shot, so landlords are reluctant to take a chance on him. So he lives in a tent on the parkway, tries to avoid county park rangers and says Sacramento cops generally leave him alone. “They like to play pass the buck,” he said.
To get Cunningham and others off the parkway is going to cost more than a buck. It’s going to cost millions of dollars in real resources to combat Sacramento’s most urgent health and safety crisis.