Auburn sees a rise in homeless campers

Authorities in Placer County have in recent months stepped up enforcement against what they describe as a growing population of homeless campers in Auburn.

While the homeless population in Placer County has held steady for the past six years, the number of people classified as “chronic homeless” – 138 – has more than tripled since 2007, according to the Placer Consortium on Homelessness, which is made up of nonprofits and local governments.

Advocates estimate that about 50 of these chronically homeless people stay in the Auburn area each night, moving between the city limits and unincorporated areas.

County officials and homeless advocates say the wooded landscape and government services available in the county seat have attracted homeless people from other parts of the region, and in some cases, from out of state.

Placer County sheriff’s officials said their resources are being tested by the number of complaints related to the transient population, including trash dumping and trespassing on private land.

“Homelessness has definitely increased,” said Ryan Zender, a deputy with the sheriff’s office who is also the transient liaison. “There’s no easy answer to this.”

He said members of law enforcement have taken to passing out “panhandling cards” advising the public against giving to people who ask for money. The city has sent crews to remove encampments and strengthened cooperation with local nonprofits that serve the homeless. The cards passed out to the public, for instance, contain phone numbers for groups where homeless people can find shelter or food.

Like Sacramento, with its lengthy American River Parkway, Auburn has plenty of wooded terrain where campers can find shelter and privacy. The number of homeless people in the quaint foothills town remains a fraction of that in the capital, however. Sacramento County’s most recent survey of the homeless population found that 2,538 people lacked permanent shelter in 2013, and 432 were chronically homeless, a 22.4 percent increase over 2011. The federal government requires counties receiving federal funds for homeless assistance to conduct a census every two years.

Zender called unincorporated north Auburn the “epicenter” of homelessness, due to the proximity of the county administrative center, fast-food restaurants and a hospital.

Sitting outside a closed bank next to a Burger King on Bell Road in north Auburn, Robert “Robo” Borden, 63, and Darla Schumacher, 43, chatted as punishing rain fell around them. Both are long-term homeless.

Borden, who has lived on Auburn streets for most of the past 28 years, said he too has noticed an increase in the homeless population, an unwelcome reality for many old-timers like himself.

“The newcomers steal, and some of them have bad table manners,” said Borden, dressed in heavy winter clothing and sporting a white beard. “I went through four sleeping bags in seven months.”

To prevent others from taking his sleeping bag, Borden has written “Robo” and his state identification number in blue ink on the cover. Borden said he lives on about $800 a month from Social Security. Several years ago, Borden briefly lived in an low-income apartment, but he said he couldn’t afford it and moved out.

“People come here, well, because of the generosity of Auburn residents,” said Wilfred Wong, community development director for the city of Auburn. He said word has gotten out to homeless people.

“It’s really peaked in the last two years. There are more homeless camps and panhandlers.”

About 2 miles from where Borden sat, small encampments near Auburn Municipal Airport have in recent months prompted complaints from local business owners. One camp, dismantled by Auburn officials last fall, was on city property within a few hundred feet of the runaway.

Clearing each camp costs the city about $800, according to Jennifer Solomon, Auburn’s only code-enforcement officer. The money pays for cleanup, staff time and public notices in the local newspaper. The city is required by law to hold certain property for 45 days, in case someone claims it, Solomon said.

Last week, sheriff’s deputies stopped by a makeshift house that had been crafted out of plywood on a privately owned parcel of wooded land overlooking the airport just outside Auburn city limits. The camp was deserted but contained a bed that had been nicely made, a propane stove, a camping light and some curtains.

Emergency calls involving the homeless have been both a time and money drain for cash-strapped agencies, officials said. Homeless people are regularly the subject of public disturbances involving alcohol, panhandling or shoplifting.

Last month, a 31-year-old transient was struck and killed by a vehicle on Highway 49, north of Auburn.

Suzi deFosset, executive director of The Gathering Inn, a Roseville nonprofit that operates a rotating shelter in local churches, said she isn’t surprised by the migration of homeless to Auburn.

“There are more wooded areas, more places you can pitch a tent,” deFosset said. “If you put a tent up in Roseville, you’re going to be cited pretty quickly.”

Each night, The Gathering Inn runs a shuttle van to take homeless residents to a church where they can find shelter. DeFosset said she used to have to turn people away for lack of space, but in the past few years, the van has rarely been full.

She said many of the homeless people in and around Auburn have violated The Gathering Inn’s no-alcohol-or-drugs policy, and no longer qualify to use the shelter.

“After the third strike, we ban them altogether,” she said. “It’s a complex problem to get your hands around.”