According to Sacramento County, there are about 8 million visitors a year to the American River Parkway. Providing for their safety and security should be a priority for our county supervisors.
But a majority of the five-member board recently rejected Supervisor Phil Serna’s proposal to deal with crime, violence and fires caused by homeless people camping along the parkway.
Serna wanted to add 37 park rangers, maintenance workers and animal control officers. Along with existing staff, social service workers and county prosecutors, they would have made up six patrol teams to deal with illegal campers.
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Serna’s proposal came after a bicyclist on the parkway was hospitalized after being attacked by two off-leash dogs. Recently, three other bicyclists were hit with rocks by people they believed were homeless. Last December, the Sacramento Audubon Society’s annual bird count in Discovery Park was canceled for the first time in 35 years because of previous encounters with homeless people and loose dogs.
In response to Serna’s proposal, several supervisors expressed concern that evicting illegal campers from the parkway would send them into nearby neighborhoods. If those supervisors looked around, they would see that we already have homeless people in neighborhoods all along the parkway from Sacramento to Rancho Cordova, Carmichael, Fair Oaks, Orangevale and Folsom. There are also homeless people in Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, South Sacramento and the Pocket area. Some can be seen camping along the Cosumnes River near Rancho Murieta.
Supervisors did ask county staff to develop three plans that address illegal camping in the county at funding levels of $3 million, $4 million and $5 million. The county budget also allocates $6.2 million to house homeless people and connect them with social services.
Those are well-intended initiatives, but long overdue. We have a serious homeless problem in our region, and we should engage in a regional approach to deal with it.
Sacramento County should be working in a coalition with cities on a comprehensive initiative to deal with homelessness. Supervisor Sue Frost correctly noted that many of the chronic homeless people are coping with mental illness. They should be taken off the streets and out of the parks, and put in a place where they can receive services.
In the meantime, supervisors should increase funding for the Regional Parks Department, which is understaffed and suffering from a high rate of turnover among park rangers.
A survey several years ago found that rangers are paid at a rate 16 percent to 18 percent lower than law enforcement officers in similar jurisdictions. When there is an opportunity to move to a job that pays more, they take it. Some have even resigned to take another job while still in training for a ranger position.
Park rangers should receive the same pay and benefits that county deputy sheriffs receive. They are protecting people in our regional parks – parks that county officials call “our community’s golden treasure.”
Stephen Green is president of Save the American River Association. He can be contacted at email@example.com.