For the past 17 years, Steve Cruz, a 55-year-old homeless man, has subsisted in multiple locations amid the bamboo, grasses and oaks along the Sacramento River.
Other homeless people came to know – and trust – Cruz so much that they anointed him the unofficial president of a colony of riverbank denizens encamped north of the Broderick Boat Ramp in West Sacramento.
On Wednesday, as city officials, police and nearly 100 volunteers helped the homeless pack up their belongings and take them to a converted motel, the colony president widely announced that – at last – it was safe to leave.
“This place was our security. This was our family. This was our ground,” said Cruz, a former assembly line mechanic and Army veteran afflicted by what he simply described as “some issues.” “But people are now really overwhelmed that someone is coming to help. It’s been so long in coming.”
Under a program called the “Bridge to Housing Pilot Project,” 71 long-term homeless residents, plus their 47 dogs and 22 cats, were moved from the river encampment. The prescreened residents are being provided housing and directed to a host of services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, and job and life counseling.
The battalion-like deployment of social services Wednesday included animal welfare officers who were on hand to provide medical checkups or shelter arrangements for the pets. Some of the animals will be allowed to move into temporary housing with their human companions.
The effort, long in the works, is part of an experiment to remove the homeless from their river environment and offer potentially life-changing solutions. Numerous faith-based and private industry groups joined forces with Yolo County and West Sacramento officials in the program. The city and county each approved $50,000 to support the project.
The program is intended to reduce the homeless population, estimated at 475 people in Yolo County and nearly 200 in West Sacramento, many of whom camp along the river.
In its most visible phase Wednesday, people who had lived without any services on the riverbanks packed up and boarded buses that would take them to temporary apartment housing at the Old Town Inn in West Sacramento. They will receive housing for 60 to 120 days as they look for more permanent rental units that they can pay for with federal housing vouchers.
Karen Larsen, Yolo County’s mental health director and alcohol and drug service administrator, said the homeless residents are eligible to be fast-tracked for federal housing assistance because they are being evicted from the river area due to “governmental action – the city of West Sacramento says you can’t live here any more.”
“We’re hoping to get all of them located into housing with supportive services wrapped around that,” Larsen said.
Before the homeless were moved from the river area to their temporary shelter, they navigated a dusty parking area, going from table to table to meet with medical and mental health professionals and sign on with caseworkers for long-term follow-up. At the Old Town Inn, a representative for a local wireless company, Budget Mobile, went door-to-door to register newly housed residents for one year of free cellular service so that the residents may stay in touch with their caseworkers.
Cruz said the homeless relocation effort Wednesday came with considerable planning and caring – in stark contrast to past years when police officers have merely come in and rousted unwanted campers.
“They used to come in before at gunpoint, telling us to go with there being no options for us,” Cruz said. “Today there is an option.”
Cindy Tuttle, a former West Sacramento mayor, said residents getting relocated from the river area had lived there an average of 4.5 years and many for well over a decade. “It’s been kind of traumatic for some of these people,” she said of efforts to move them out.
Among those having a hard time Wednesday was Lovie Bishop, 55, Cruz’s girlfriend.
Cruz had built their home with plywood that washed up on the river banks, plus logs and tarpaulins. Shrouded behind a thicket of bamboo, it offered a sense of security and a haven for the couple and their three dogs, a pit bull named Cassandra and two mixed-breeds, Butter and Tillie.
Bishop, who has been homeless for 22 years, had a career as a cashier for a state agency before mental health problems took hold. In recent years, she found comfort in her life on the river, fishing for catfish and sturgeon and serving as a guardian to the local deer by running off would-be hunters.
“I love the life out here,” Bishop said as she broke into tears. “I can’t leave this world without it making me cry. I’ll cry about not being here. It’s killing me.”
But she said she was excited by the chance to end her long era of homelessness.
“I think it’s great,” she said of the city, county and volunteer effort. “Nobody can say they didn’t help all of us. They’re really trying.”
Long-bearded Robert “Frank” Mayse, 66, packed up his few belongings into a wagon and headed out of the river campground and toward a new life. Mayse was a union painter and construction worker until he blew out discs in his back working on a well project. He didn’t seem to remember Wednesday how many years he has been homeless. He just said his knees and joints are shot from a hard life outdoors and that he wouldn’t mind finally having a roof and a bed.
“I was really skeptical about this but I have to be optimistic,” Mayse said. “The worst thing is being asked to leave. But I’ve been out so long outside, I don’t mind.”
Mark Green, 51, was the first of the relocated river campers to get a room at the Old Town Inn. He had been homeless for nearly three decades. He has diabetes and gout, grown children he misses and grandchildren he has never met. As a young man, Green once considered homelessness an adventure. As he aged, he said, it became his curse.
On Wednesday, Green felt his life changing. He signed up for substance abuse counseling, job counseling, food assistance, “everything they had to offer.”
He looked around his room. He noted a new bicycle – “blessed to me” by a local church group. He marveled over basic staples, bread and peanut butter, soap and shampoo, neatly arranged. He looked over his new, crisply pressed shirt and his clean denim jeans –and began to weep at his good fortune.
“I feel this is a blessing. This is a blessing to those who want it,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m ready for a change. I see it already: I’m off the streets. This is my opportunity. I’m in.”
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.