‘They don’t want to be here.’ Scenes of a river homeless camp in Sacramento
Ground zero for homelessness in Sacramento is a 1.7-mile stretch between Interstate 5 and the Highway 160 bridge. It’s a virtual village of tents and lean-tos along the south side of the American River, a home of human misery just a few minutes ride from Old Sacramento, Golden 1 Center, Township 9 and other symbols of Sacramento stability and prosperity.
I biked down there last week on what is officially called the Two Rivers trail, but nobody calls it that. A more appropriate moniker could be: Sacramento’s trail of shame.
Riding along the bottom rung of homelessness in Sacramento is like cruising into a modern-day “Hooverville” straight out of the Great Depression. For almost the whole ride, there they were: Tent after tent occupied by Sacramento residents living like ghost people who are barely subsisting a short distance from recreational fisherman, the city skyline, the state Capitol.
I rode there with Bee visual journalist Arden Barnes and an old friend, longtime Sacramento TV reporter George Warren, because this location arguably symbolizes homelessness in Sacramento more than any other.
It’s a humanitarian crisis and a public health crisis like the homeless encampments downtown or under freeways overpasses in various neighborhoods of the city. But this stretch of desperation is also conveniently shielded from the view of a broader community that has grown used to accepting people living in third world conditions in our midst.
This local nightmare is populated by disconnected residents of Sacramento, which challenges the notion that homelessness is driven in the state capital by lost souls flocking here for homeless services.
If only that were true, that Sacramento’s homeless were mostly imports. The disaster within Discovery Park would be far easier to dismiss.
It’s not. I found what city and county officials found when they counted homeless residents earlier this year and reported that our homeless population has swelled and that most of them were from here.
“I’ve lived here all my life. I’m from the south area,” said Andrew Benenato, a 54-year-old homeless man. He said he has lived along the American for a year and sees no end in sight.
“I went to Hiram Johnson High School,” he said. “I went to Will C Wood (Middle School). I went to all them schools.”
Sacramento’s shame is that we have county residents living in squalor who don’t want to be here, but a web of traps keep people here once they have fallen as low as you can go.
Benenato told me he doesn’t want to be here. He hates it here. He would happily trade his encampment of tents for a place to live under a roof. But his journey to the bottom of Sacramento is all too common and yet so beyond our reach to fix.
Why don’t authorities just close down these encampments?
Last fall, a federal panel of judges from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that ordinances banning people from sleeping outside were unconstitutional if the homeless had nowhere else to go.
Sacramento doesn’t have enough housing to shelter homeless people. When the city does propose homeless shelters and low income housing, residents always do the same thing: They oppose them.
So the answer to why the river’s edge is ground zero for homelessness isn’t pretty: Because we tolerate it and because we oppose the only real methods to combat it.
Why is this?
In my community of Sacramento, I would distill the depth of knowledge that many people feel about homelessness down to six words: “Get It Out Of My Face.” Many people don’t want to see it, they don’t want it near them, they wonder why Sacramento doesn’t “enforce the law.” Round them up. Take them somewhere else.
Where? Well, who knows, because there really is no place to take them. But the “Get-It-Out-Of-My-Face” crowd doesn’t generally think it through that far.
I would count myself as having previously been stuck in this mindset, but no more. This mindset is a waste of time. This is so beyond pointing fingers at any one person or laying blame for the despair living along the Sacramento River.
As we become more prosperous as a city, we are leaving more people behind.
Pity or mercy or revulsion or narrow notions of self-sufficiency aren’t going to bend the curve of homelessness in Sacramento. We can start by understanding who is living down by the river. What I saw defies our hardened attitudes that we maintain from a safe distance.
I was taken by the tasteful floral tablecloth on the table which Benenato has placed as a centerpiece of his multi-tent encampment. We saw the tablecloth and we stopped. It was a touch of home in a desolate place. It was a sign of self pride amid burned out grills, discarded junk, vile smells of human waste and loud barks of dogs whose primary function was guarding what people had.
The cleanliness of Benenato’s encampment, the touches of home, made his presence here all the more striking.
But he got here as so many do: His housing situation was fragile and dependent on someone else. He had a falling out with that person, his mother, and “she kicked me out,”he said.
He came to the river thinking he was just “visiting” a friend living there who could help him out for a time. He’s been there ever since. Becoming stuck at the river was cemented by what was a catastrophe to him, but would have been an expensive inconvenience to you and me: His car was towed away.
“Now I’m stuck out here,” he said. “A lot of people are out here for a reason. They just couldn’t pay the rent or they got thrown out of their home. They just couldn’t do it.”
Benenato said he is looking for a job but his lady friend has had health issues and that has restricted his time. He makes money by helping out on cleaning crews along the river.
He slept out here every night of a terribly cold and rainy winter. His eyes look tired. As he spoke, an agitated dog nearby was barking menacingly.
We asked if he could take us for a tour of encampments. He looked at us and ruefully said that a tour for strangers would definitely not be a good idea.
“I really don’t hang out with anybody around here,” he said. “There are people out here who just hate, hate, hate. I just ain’t down with that.”
When we asked Benenato if some people on the river wanted to be there, he said, yes, but even more people didn’t.
“There are a lot of people who don’t care about anybody but themselves,” he said. “The people on this side of the river, they are stuck here. They don’t want to be here. But there is nothing you can do until you pull yourself together.”
But if they do want to get off the river, Sacramento doesn’t have enough places to put them. Until that changes, a federal court order keeps him where they are. There is no great public pressure to respond to the misery on the river. Quite the contrary. Too many people just don’t want to see it. They don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to think about it.
I asked Benenato what the city could do for him.
“If they can give me a place to stay, I’d go,” he said. “I’d leave everything here, and I’m gone.”
Marcos Bretón will talk with George Warren on Channel 13 at 10 p.m. Thursday, July 25.