‘They’re being very petty’ — Are park rangers citing homeless unfairly on the parkway?
Marietta Watson wonders why being homeless is cause for a ticket.
She reached into her small purse and pulled out the pink citation slip with the offense “CART ON PKWY” that she received from an American River Parkway ranger last week. It is exhausting enough being homeless, she said. This was like salt in the wound.
“I should be helped as a homeless person,” said Watson, 53, who is disabled from leg and back injuries. “Not stopped for having my cart and my belongings.”
Over the years, the deterioration of the region’s beloved 23-mile recreational park has become a symbol of Sacramento County’s ongoing struggle to solve the homeless crisis.
But after federal appeals court ruled in September that cities cannot punish people for resting in public if they have no other options, park rangers no longer issue citations for unlawful camping unless there are available beds, which is rare.
Instead, arrests, camp clearings and citations for other behaviors that lawyers and advocates say unfairly target the homeless have skyrocketed along the American River Parkway, even as temporary shelters and permanent homes for them in Sacramento County remain insufficient.
The enforcement shift raises questions among some about how Sacramento County rangers and officials can increase efforts to clean, preserve and protect the American River Parkway – buoyed by new funding and an expanded staff – without violating the spirit of the Martin v. City of Boise court decision.
“The best we can do is continue to be creative in how we address the impacts” of camping on the parkway, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna told the board last month, and “simultaneously focus on providing shelter and wrap-around services for those that feel like their only option is to camp.”
After the Martin decision, between September 2018 and February 2019, the average number of citations issued for infractions related to shopping carts on the parkway, littering and building structures or tying ropes to trees jumped to about 304 per month compared to 24 per month in the same period the previous year, according to ranger activity reports.
Rangers have issued only one citation for illegal camping since the decision, a case of a camper rejecting an available shelter spot, said Sacramento County Chief Ranger Michael Doane. In the same period last year, rangers gave out 1,219 citations for illegal camping.
Each citation may cost anywhere from $50 to $480 depending on the violation, though many homeless people perform community service work in lieu of the fee.
Arrests along the parkway have also more than doubled compared to the same period last year, an average of about 115 per month post-Martin, compared to about 49 per month previously.
And rangers are clearing four times as many camps a month as they did last year: About 767 camps per month, compared to about 177. Camps are cleared only if rangers or maintenance workers determine they have been abandoned.
“They’re being very petty, since camping is now no longer illegal, they have to do their jobs,” said Liz Williams, who is homeless and was recently cited for leaving her bike while on a bike trail.
But Doane said the increase in activity is the result not only of adjusting to the court decision, but also of hiring several new rangers to fully staff the department.
Mounting trash, needles and human waste along the American River Parkway led the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to approve a $5 million plan to boost the county’s regional parks department to address issues related to the homeless in August 2017.
“As someone that’s grown up here, that enjoys all kinds of recreational amenities associated with the parkway in his youth and would like to do so as he grows old,” Serna told the board last month, “it really is a shame that – like so many of my constituents – I don’t necessarily feel safe, I don’t necessarily appreciate the deteriorating aesthetic.”
Sacramento County now spends about $17.2 million toward the regional parks department, up from about $12.4 million from 2017. The department is requesting the same amount of funding for its next budget, which is under review, said director Liz Bellas.
One of those new hires includes Sgt. Randy Bickel, who joined the parks department about a year ago. Walking along Garden Highway just feet from the river to respond to a recent incident, Bickel pointed out camps that had dug into the soil and left debris nearby floating in the water.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story?
Homelessness along the American River Parkway — and how to address it — has been a top priority for Sacramento County. With that in mind, The Sacramento Bee reviewed local impacts of the recent Martin v. City of Boise federal appeals court ruling that says cities cannot punish people for resting in public if they have no other options. How has this ruling changed the way park rangers police the parkway? Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
How did we report this story?
Data was key to our approach: We collected and analyzed citation data published in monthly ranger activity reports posted on the Sacramento County Regional Parks website. We also headed out to the parkway to get first-hand accounts from both homeless people and park rangers. Then we heard from neighbors, who said bicyclists have been attacked by off-leash dogs and trash piles along the river.
Which citations did we track — and why?
Every day, American River Parkway rangers may cite anyone, not just the homeless, on the parkway for ordinance violations ranging from smoking in restricted areas to not paying an entrance fee. The citations we focused on — shopping carts on the parkway, littering and building structures or typing ropes to trees — are specifically ones advocates and lawyers identified as typically targeting homeless individuals rather than recreational park users.
Follow our ongoing coverage of the homeless crisis in Sacramento County at this link.
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“It’s horrible,” he said. “This right here what we’re standing on, this prevents flooding. This is technically a levee and when they tear it apart it really weakens the power of the levee.”
Doane estimated anywhere from 500 to 700 people camp in the parkway on any given night. The ultimate goal for rangers is to lessen the footprint of camping in the parkway, he said. “It was never designed to have long-term camping,” he said. “There’s just no infrastructure for that.”
Beyond code enforcement, Doane stressed rangers also work with other county departments such as the department of human assistance to direct those on the parkway to available housing.
In the last year, rangers have helped 44 people get placed in transitional or permanent housing, Doane said.
“We get the rap that we’re just out there doing enforcement on people who have no place to go,” Doane said. “But our responsibility is to all users, the millions that use the parkway each year.”
‘Just trying to exist’
Some lawyers and advocates question whether the shift in enforcement tactics are in line with the spirit of the Martin decision.
Citations related to tying ropes or having a shopping cart, for instance, criminalize the homeless while doing little to help the most vulnerable people find shelter or housing, said Noel Kammermann, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, Sacramento’s largest homeless services agency.
“It’s very frustrating for these folks when they’re just trying to exist,” Kammermann said.
And some homeless people report their camps being falsely designated abandoned and cleared after leaving for the day to get lunch, said Shannon Dominguez-Stevens, director of Loaves & Fishes’ Maryhouse, a women’s daytime shelter.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said that ongoing efforts by rangers to clear camps and cite individuals amounts to a “whack-a-mole” strategy that is counterproductive.
He said he’d rather see county efforts directed toward creating more bathrooms or dumpsters on the parkway, expanding needle exchange programs and securing more housing.
“There’s no denying trash is flowing in the parkway, but at the same time people wouldn’t be there if there were enough shelter beds,” Erlenbusch said.
It isn’t uncommon for municipalities across the country to adapt to new court rulings related to homelessness by enforcing, sometimes in “disingenuous ways,” existing ordinances, according to UC Berkeley law professor Jeff Selbin said.
“Courts can help to curb the worst abuses of homeless people,” he said in an email, “but decriminalizing poverty is ultimately a political and policy decision.”
Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which filed the Martin case, said that the court decision doesn’t apply just to nighttime sleeping.
The ruling concludes the Eighth Amendment prohibits “the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.”
So citing a person resting during the day after working a night shift with nowhere else to rest may be deemed cruel and unusual punishment, Bauman said. And while there’s no bright-line rule, Bauman said, there is a principle established with the Martin decision.
“It really boils down to, is someone engaged in something involuntary that’s a consequence of being human,” she said.
A federal appeals court rejected Boise’s request to reconsider its September ruling on the city’s “anti-camping” ordinance Monday. The city has not decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, city spokesman Mike Journee told the Idaho Statesman.
‘Jewel of Sacramento’
On a recent Wednesday night at the cafeteria of Woodlake Elementary School, about two dozen neighbors gathered to hear Doane discuss enforcement efforts along the cherished parkway that for years was described as “the jewel of Sacramento,” according to David Lukenbill, founder of the American River Parkway Preservation Society.
Why do most of the homeless congregate in the lower river area rather than up in Rancho Cordova? one resident asked. Most homeless services are closer to the grid, Doane said.
What do we do when we see a camp fires? When you see one, don’t hesitate to call 911, Doane told them.
Sacramento city officials are proposing a new shelter at Cal Expo how will that shape the parkway? Details are still unclear, he replied. Besides, not all homeless take up offers of help by rangers, Doane said.
The neighbors groaned. “Of course not,” one muttered.
“But if that shelter gets approved (and) I can go through that area and identify 50 homeless people living within walking distance to that shelter, and they said ‘we’ll give you 50 beds,’ I can cite every one of them if they refuse to take shelter,” Doane offered.
Residents say issues related to homeless people – particularly those with drug and mental health problems – on the parkway persist.
Bicyclists have been attacked by off-leash dogs and people throwing rocks. Thousands of pounds of garbage pool and collect along the river, damaging the park’s ecosystem. And this week, an off-leash dog bit a Bee photographer who was reporting on the parkway.
Many neighbors in attendance welcomed the news of the increase in citations and arrests.
“This is great that we now have (more) rangers,” said Pat Sayer-Handley, a Woodlake resident. “I think you’re really making an impact.”
In recent years and months, the city and county have both committed millions to creating and finding temporary shelters and housing units to address homelessness.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has proposed a $40.5 million plan to create nearly 800 shelter beds across the city. Since 2017, Sacramento Countyis is spending an additional $10.3 million annually towards four homeless initiatives that offer permanent housing and low barrier temporary shelter.
As of December 2018, Sacramento County permanently housed 416 previously homeless people.
Still, thousands remain homeless in the county. The latest county survey results, conducted in 2017, found 3,665 people living without shelter.
As for Watson, the homeless woman ticketed for her dolly cart, she is praying her citation fee and community service will be waived because of her disability. After showering at Maryhouse, she’ll return once more to the American River Parkway.
“The answer to the homeless problem is to have more shelters in the area,” Watson said. “And to not harass me because I’m homeless because homelessness is not a crime.”
Bee reporter Theresa Clift contributed to this report.