That people camp on the American River Parkway in violation of county law is well established. What might come as a surprise is just how settled some of them are.
On a December weekday before the last storm, a metal door attached to two trees blocked access to a campsite otherwise surrounded by thick brush. Another site under the 12th Street bridge had a television powered by a generator. Upriver, Fred Gurr had a large cooler, an office chair and other items clustered around his site, which he shares with his black cat, Bug Out.
“I’ve lived here for four years,” said Gurr, a veteran who said he became homeless after losing a job. “I’ve been at the same location the whole time.”
Just last year, county supervisors approved funding to hire more rangers to enforce an illegal camping ban, clean up the parkway and connect homeless people with services. Now, county rangers are ticketing far fewer people for illegal camping, with 602 citations through the end of November, roughly half the pace of the 1,278 issued last year.
Chief Ranger Michael Doane, who took over law enforcement duties in county parks late last year, said he is responsible for the decrease in citations. He said he has called for less enforcement of the illegal camping ordinance because he doesn’t think it has meaningful consequences.
Most offenders perform community service instead of paying a fine, Doane said. Officials with the Public Defender’s and District Attorney’s offices confirmed that is routine.
Doane said he will continue to enforce the camping ordinance and other laws broken by the homeless, but there is only so much he can do.
“Law enforcement can’t solve homelessness,” he said. “You can’t separate out the fact there is a segment of the population who does not want to be homeless and have no place to go.”
The decrease in citations has occurred as fires on the parkway have increased and illegal trash sites have continued to pile up. Statistics from the Sacramento Fire Department and the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District show that 79 fires burned more than 260 acres from January through November, already the most fires and acres burned on the parkway in at least five years. Doane said rangers are increasingly concerned about fire with the weather getting colder, which leads people to build fires for heat.
Large swaths of the parkway have been scorched black and, along with piles of trash and discarded items the homeless want to recycle, have tarnished the 23-mile urban greenway that community leaders often call the “jewel of Sacramento.”
Last year, the county pegged illegal camping costs for rangers, maintenance staff and equipment at $1.1 million. That included having to clean 1,474 trash sites related to illegal camping. The county is responsible for all of the parkway, including the section in the city.
Those figures do not include responses to fires by Metro Fire and the Sacramento Fire Department. In the last five years, at least 571 acres have burned on the parkway, although the actual figure is higher because there were hundreds of fires under an acre each that were listed as zero acres burned.
In wet seasons such as the current one, firefighters often have to rescue homeless people along the American River when water releases increase. Sixteen people were recovered Friday when their campsites were surrounded by water, despite warnings from officials to move to higher ground.
The parkway has an abundance of trees and other fuel for fire, and they became flammable during the recent drought years, said Patrick Taylor, an investigative supervisor for the Sacramento Fire Department. Some fires have spread more than 100 acres and forced evacuations of the parkway and events at Cal Expo. Habitat has been damaged or destroyed, forcing birds and other animals to relocate.
The Sacramento section of the parkway has long had the greatest share of homeless camps because of its proximity to social services and more land out of public view.
Homeless people have been convicted of arson on the parkway and have also caused blazes by letting flames escape from campfires, stoves and grills, officials say.
Since the summer of 2015, the Sacramento Fire Department has found that homeless people were involved in at least 46 of 86 fires, according to records obtained through a California Public Records Act request. In 28 of the 42 other fires, the cause was undetermined or still under investigation.
In the last five years, the Sacramento Fire Department has determined that 14 parkway fires were intentionally set.
Stephen Green, president of the Save the American River Association, said he understands that officials need to address housing and other issues related to homelessness. But there will always be some people resistant to social services, he said, so the county needs to employ law enforcement to keep campers out of the parkway.
“There doesn’t seem to be a commitment from law enforcement,” he said. “Our elected leaders are not forcing them to take action.”
County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district covers the Sacramento portion of the parkway, said he was unaware of the decline in camping citations until he was told by The Sacramento Bee. He said he did not want to comment on the numbers until he had a fuller understanding of the reasons behind the shift.
Serna said there has been “a lot of activity to address a very complex problem,” including the creation of a committee that includes him, Supervisor Patrick Kennedy and two Sacramento City Council members. The committee has been discussing responses to homelessness, and the full Board of Supervisors and City Council plan to do the same with a series of joint meetings starting next month.
Serna said he sees an opportunity for progress with Darrell Steinberg becoming Sacramento mayor last week. Homelessness and the related issue of mental illness have been signature issues for Steinberg since he served on the City Council and in the state Legislature.
Serna said he wants to revisit how the county responds to illegal campers, perhaps having social workers accompany rangers as they patrol the camps. That way, homeless people can gain access to housing, drug and alcohol treatment, as well as mental-health services, he said.
Ben Cardwell, who goes by the nickname “Ewok,” said he’s been living on the river since 1993 and has been homeless since he was a teenager in the 1970s. He said drug abuse keeps him homeless and that the county should invest in halfway houses to help people like him.
“Of course I use drugs. You’ve got to be on drugs or nuts to be out here,” he said, sitting in front of his television under the 12th Street bridge.
In September 2015, supervisors approved funding for a third shift of rangers dedicated to illegal camping after hearing from residents who live near the parkway. Bill Ferrell, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association, told supervisors that residents were “under siege” from the homeless.
Doane said he hasn’t been able to fill the three positions for the illegal camping detail, although he has hired three rangers for other positions. He said the rangers have tremendous responsibilities besides illegal camping, patrolling 15,000 acres spread from one end of the county to the other. The summer holiday season adds pressure when large parties and illegal drinking increase, he said.
The illegal camping unit has four rangers who combine to patrol the parkway seven days a week. While illegal camping citations are down, rangers continue to cite the homeless for other violations, including littering, according to county statistics. The rangers cannot remove campers’ belongings without posting a notice 48 hours in advance, the result of a lawsuit challenging the camping ordinance by attorney Mark Merin.
Richard Dean said each morning he gathers up his tent and other belongings, puts them in a trailer he pulls on his bike and goes to Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit that serves the homeless about a mile from the river. Dean, who has lived on the parkway for three years, said he gets out early to avoid the rangers.
Merin said spending money on rangers is a poor response to homelessness. “It should not be dealt with as a law-enforcement problem,” he said. “It should be viewed as a social problem.”
Fines for illegal camping start at $50 and go up with each one, maxing out at $250. The homeless can’t afford to pay the fines, so they do community service instead, said Karen Flynn of the county Public Defender’s Office.
Joan Burke of Loaves and Fishes said she disagrees with Doane that community service is not a punishment, because the homeless must wear a yellow safety vest when they clean streets as part of their duty. “It’s like the Scarlet Letter,” she said.
She, like Merin, does not believe more enforcement is the answer.
“It’s a disgrace that people are being punished because they don’t have a place to live,” she said.