The Homeless

Why hundreds more homeless camps and tons of garbage have been cleared from popular parkway

Sacramento County workers hauled 575 tons of trash out of the American River Parkway during the first four months of this year, doubling the amount they removed during the same period last year. They shut down 741 homeless camps, compared to 341 during the same period in 2017.

The reason? More than $6 million in additional patrols and other efforts designed to protect the region's beloved parkway, which some argue is seriously threatened by the activities of homeless people who live along its 23-mile stretch.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will discuss during budget hearings whether to maintain the higher funding level for policing and cleaning up the parkway and helping chronic river dwellers find housing.

The push for parkway protection has come as a result of public pressure and "a realization that the impacts of illegal camping needed to be addressed differently, and at a greater volume than ever before," said county Parks Director Jeff Leatherman.

Supervisor Phil Serna is convinced that the focus is paying off.

"What a difference a year makes," Serna said. "We have made a thoughtful investment in the parkway, and we're seeing the fruits of it."

The county currently has 18 workers assigned to cleanup crews, compared to just four in 2017. It has 15 park rangers assigned to dealing with illegal campers, 10 more than last year. Crews now have heavy equipment at their disposal to remove garbage from campsites.

The result? Park rangers issued 1,173 citations for illegal camping from January through April, records show. That compares to 341 citations during the same period in 2017. This year's actions resulted in the closure of 741 camps.

"There are areas along the parkway that have been notorious for being illegal dump sites that now are free of trash, free of buckets full of human waste, free of used hypodermic needles," Serna said. "All indications are that this work is paying dividends."

But the county is not just clearing out encampments, Leatherman pointed out. As part of the initiative funded last year, the Department of Human Assistance is working with housing specialists to shelter and find permanent residences for homeless people who are willing to move inside.

"It's important, because if we don't work to solve homelessness, our problems are just going to continue," Leatherman said.

Homeless encampments exist throughout the parkway, but are most concentrated in the city stretch between downtown's Discovery Park and Campus Commons, near Sacramento State, Leatherman said.

Residents of those areas, as well as people who use the river and bicycle trail for recreation, have for years complained that burgeoning homeless camps have desecrated the parkway and increasingly have made it feel unsafe. Homeless campers have been blamed for committing crimes, lighting fires and contaminating the lower American River with potentially harmful levels of bacteria.

In the past, rangers forced people out of campsites, only to see them resurface in different locations along the parkway. Now the county is taking a different approach.

Rangers and housing experts are working with staffers from the county's Department of Human Assistance to convince homeless campers, some of whom have lived along the river for years, to abandon their tents and move inside. The county is contracting with the nonprofit Sacramento Self Help Housing to place former campers in rental homes that serve as shelters until they are ready to move into permanent housing, said Cindy Cavanaugh, director of homeless initiatives for the county.

Since March, about three dozen formerly homeless people have moved into the small shelters, which are scattered throughout the county, said Julie Field, homeless services program manager for the Human Assistance agency.

"We are focusing on the most vulnerable people out there," some of whom have severe health issues and disabilities, Field said. Among those currently enrolled in the program are five people who shared a river encampment and now "function like a family" in a home off Truxel Road near their former campsite, she said.

Participants in the sheltering program receive help obtaining documents, Social Security payments, health care and other services that will help put them on a path toward stability, said Cavanaugh. Each shelter accommodates five people, plus a "house monitor," officials said.

Because of all of the changes, parkway users "should be seeing a visible difference" in how the stretch looks and feels compared to a year ago, Leatherman said. "Yes, there are still homeless people camping on the parkway. But we are making progress."

Nancy Kitz, a Sacramento resident and frequent user of the parkway, said she supports the county's efforts. But so far, she said, she has seen little evidence that homelessness along the river has decreased.

"I applaud the county in its stewardship of the American River," she said. But despite current efforts, homeless people still occupy the parkway, and when their camps are destroyed they "are left to scramble like cats chasing a laser pointer," she said. "This really highlights the shelter crisis in Sacramento and the lack of other transitional housing.

"To properly respond to the environmental threats to the American River now, we have to respond to the vast human degradation that is taking place there as well," Kitz said.

Serna said the county's initiatives are a good start.

"I'm not proclaiming 'Mission accomplished,' " he said. "But things are a hell of a lot better than they were a year ago. We can declare true success when all of the people who once said they were avoiding the lower reaches of the parkway feel comfortable enjoying that area again. It's starting to happen. That convinces me we've done the right thing, and we ought to continue to do the right thing."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee