Sacramento County to add enforcement, services for parkway campers

Repeated fires in the American River Parkway this summer added urgency for Sacramento County to address the problem of illegal campers in the wooded area.
Repeated fires in the American River Parkway this summer added urgency for Sacramento County to address the problem of illegal campers in the wooded area. rpench@sacbee.com

Concerned about fires and other safety risks on the American River Parkway, Sacramento County supervisors Thursday approved about $500,000 in spending over the next year to crack down on illegal camping and provide services for homeless people who often congregate along the waterway.

In a board hearing, supervisors acknowledged they need a better plan to address homeless campers along the river. To that end, the board expects a nonprofit, Sacramento Steps Forward, to bring a comprehensive strategy in coming months for the county and the city of Sacramento to address the issue.

The board’s response brought applause from parkway-area residents who said the county has previously not done enough about illegal camping. The issue came to the fore this summer as residents blamed homeless campers for brush fires that regularly occurred along the stretch between Discovery Park and Cal Expo in bone-dry conditions.

“We are basically under siege,” said Bill Ferrell, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association, which represents a residential area just north of the parkway. “We need to do something different.”

The board approved $216,850 in funding this year for a third illegal camping unit, which will consist of two rangers and a maintenance worker. The parkway’s ranger unit, which dropped to 13 funded positions in the recession, will now have 23 funded positions, although five of those positions are vacant.

“There’s a retention problem,” said County Executive Brad Hudson, adding that relatively low pay is one reason rangers don’t stay in the job.

Supervisors also approved $55,000 to hire a county employee to become a “homeless navigator” north of the American River. The employee will help homeless people get needed social services.

Finally, the board approved $235,000 for nonprofits that work with the homeless. That includes an additional $160,000, on top of a previous $100,000 appropriation, for the winter sanctuary program administered by Sacramento Steps Forward and run by area churches that provide shelter to the homeless during cold months. The program has been asked to increase services after the county stopped funding a shelter at Cal Expo several years ago.

Supervisors said the county must do more than cite the homeless for illegal camping, because an enforcement-only approach at best just moves the homeless to different parts of the county. Supervisors said homelessness is no longer just a city problem; it has spread into suburbs such as Orangevale and Citrus Heights.

“We’re still spinning our wheels to some degree,” Supervisor Don Nottoli said.

Sacramento attorney Mark Merin said the county should spend money to end homelessness, not to criminalize it. Merin challenged the county and city of Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinances in U.S. District Court several years ago. Under terms of a 2009 settlement, rangers must give campers an opportunity to remove their belongings or to store and inventory the items for later retrieval.

Merin said a recent Justice Department opinion stated that anti-camping ordinances constitute unusual punishment when local government does not provide homeless shelters. “You can’t put someone in jail because they’re homeless.”

Supervisors were in agreement that a broader strategy to address homelessness is needed to alleviate the illegal camping problem. While poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are seen as underlying causes of homelessness, any strategic plan must first address the need for housing, they said.

Ryan Loofbourrow, executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward, said he is working with city and county staff to collect data on how public money is spent on homelessness. That information will be used to come up with a new plan to address homelessness sometime early next year.

The Board of Supervisors vote for additional parkway services came as part of its update of the annual budget. Hudson said the county anticipates having an additional $14 million to spend in its $3.8 billion budget but that most of the money is needed to improve the county’s finances.

Supervisors, who unanimously approved the budget update, added $2 million to a rainy-day fund that previously had no money. The board also approved paying $6.7 million owed to a workers’ compensation fund that was tapped during the recession to pay for other needs.