I have no idea what the American River Parkway used to look like, but I’ve heard stories about its beauty between Discovery Park and Campus Commons. About how people once didn’t fear riding bikes, jogging or walking along trails that criss-cross the dense stretch of woods and water.
It’s hard to imagine that now.
There have been fires. Dozens have seared the drought-ravaged underbrush and reduced massive trees to twigs this summer. People who care about the parkway are understandably furious about the destruction.
But that’s only half the story. The other half I learned one recent Saturday morning when I took part in the Great American River Clean-Up, put on annually by the American River Parkway Foundation.
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About 1,600 volunteers came out and collected more than 17,000 pounds of trash. Most of the volunteers were upstream, between Sacramento State and Folsom. I spent almost three hours with crews closer to Discovery Park.
What I saw – and unfortunately smelled and fortunately avoided stepping in – taught me this: We don’t need to wait for fires to destroy the American River Parkway. Homeless campers are already doing it.
This isn’t the Tent City made famous by the Oprah Winfrey Network during the recession. This is something else. Something far more disturbing and, quite frankly, more disgusting.
As one longtime foundation volunteer told me, while pecking away at a disgusting pile of trash deep in the woods: “I used to worry about the people out here. Now I worry more about the parkway.”
It’s not hard to see why.
Camp #1: Needles, needles and more needles.
“Look at this!” Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna shouted at me from a knot of trees.
Along with a couple volunteers wearing sturdy shoes and carrying trash bags, this was the first stop that morning. It was an abandoned camp, with a fire ring under low-hanging tree branches, a tarp and a metal hook shoved into a tree.
I trudged over, deliberately looking away from another volunteer who was figuring out how to deal with a bucket of diarrhea. Dozens of used needles were all over the ground near Serna, the used syringes and orange caps dangerously out in the open.
“Watch what you pick up,” he said. “This is exactly what happened to me.”
Serna, while volunteering for another parkway cleanup, accidentally stabbed himself with a used needle. He had to take a month’s course of antiviral drugs – a fate he says he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. In that moment, I was suddenly glad that I had doubled up on my work gloves.
Many – park rangers invariably say “most” or “all” – of the homeless campers are struggling with addiction. Heroin, opioids, alcohol, you name it. Finding needles is so common that rangers keep containers in their trucks to store them. An empty water bottle also will do in a pinch.
Addiction, of course, makes it harder to convince those campers to seek shelter. So does mental illness, which often accompanies addiction. Many of the campers are “chronically homeless” – a particularly stubborn population to help, but one that advocacy group Sacramento Steps Forward believes it can drastically reduce by late next year.
“Addiction is king, and that must be satisfied first,” said Ryan Loofbourrow, executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward. “(But) that doesn’t mean, through housing and services, we can’t overcome that.”
Camp #2: Dumpsters are cleaner than this.
We got an odd look from a woman on a bicycle while bending down to scoop up candy wrappers, cigarette butts, fast-food bags and discarded clothing into our trash bags. The thick underbrush was filled with the stuff, just choked with litter. Even around a makeshift fire pit.
She circled back a few minutes later. She looked angry, as if we were destroying her campsite.
One park ranger told me it hasn’t always been this way. She has worked the parkway for years, and says while there have always been homeless campers, they didn’t always treat the environment like a garbage dump. Echoing Pope Francis, she speculated that it’s a symptom of our “throwaway culture.” Even for people of little means, stuff can always be replaced.
Camp #3: Pit bulls, weed and tree cocoons.
The first sign of what turned out to be a massive camp beneath the trees was an off-leash pit bull. Two of them, actually. They toddled up, thankfully more curious than angry.
“Come get your dogs!” Serna shouted. A homeless man who sounded like he was sleeping in an elaborate, apartment-sized cocoon of tree branches slurred back something unintelligible.
It was nearly noon and we had filled about a dozen bags with trash when we came across this collection of campsites deep in the woods. The American River was only a few feet away, a Metro Fire helicopter circled ominously above, but other than that it was secluded.
One little area in the bushes appeared to be the “bathroom” with all the smells and stained paper to match. A few feet away was the cocoon, stocked with as much stuff as a real apartment, from electronics to clothing to kids’ toys. Up the hill, there was a mountain of likely stolen bikes and bike parts.
Serna found and confiscated a used grill, stored in its original box. We also found a few empty canisters of medical marijuana, a water bottle full of marijuana shavings and a crack cocaine kit. The pit bulls and a stray cat had their own water and food bowls.
More than any other, this camp, buried deep in the parkway where rangers don’t often go, offered proof that people aren’t just camping on the American River Parkway. Many of them have no intention of living anywhere else or changing the horrific way they treat the parkway.
So, as a community, what do we do with this group of homeless people? Stopping the wildfires is one thing. That’s easy. This is something else.
How should Sacramento deal with the homeless camping in the American River Parkway?
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