Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Suburban community wrestles with urban problem

Allan Davis’ first reaction when homeless people began vandalizing his property wasn’t anger. It wasn’t contempt. And he didn’t call law enforcement and demand that the people responsible for stealing copper from his heating and cooling systems be hauled away.

Davis is a real estate investor who is developing a former Carmichael strip mall into what he hopes will be a destination akin to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. He said he felt the same compassion for the copper thieves as he did for the people who have urinated on his walls. The same sympathy he felt for the man he found sleeping on the ground outside one of his buildings with his pants around his ankles.

“My wife and I offered to drive some folks down to the Gospel Mission,” Davis said. “But they didn’t want to go. They want to stay here. They want their independence. They want to sleep on the street.”

Business owners in suburban Carmichael say they have a homeless problem, one that’s gotten worse in the past few years.

It’s well known that homeless people congregate in downtown Sacramento, where they have easy access to Loaves & Fishes, the largest homeless services organization in the area. In recent weeks, a spate of 15 fires along the American River Parkway has sparked a new wave of frustration about the illegal homeless encampments rampant in some of the parkway’s forestland and fields.

Suburban Carmichael is a healthy drive from the largest concentrations of homelessness in the region, yet it has attracted a sizable number of people living on the streets, people with substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, residents say.

Local business people think there are several reasons Carmichael the bedroom community has become Carmichael the homeless magnet.

The community isn’t incorporated and doesn’t have its own police force, relying on sheriff’s deputies whose services are spread throughout the county. Instead of having its own city council, whose members all live in town, Carmichael is part of a large county district overseen by Supervisor Susan Peters. The community’s concerns move up and down the pecking order of a broader region.

Thoroughfares such as Manzanita Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard have two attractions for homeless people: bus lines and businesses. And many Carmichael property owners aren’t based locally – they collect rent checks far from the community – and don’t feel the urgency to police the areas around their properties.

In addition, Carmichael has a vacancy rate of roughly 20 percent, the stubborn vestiges of the recession. Davis and others say the word is out. Squatters have taken up residence in some of those buildings, particularly during winter months.

One of the more striking reasons Carmichael has become a destination for homeless people is also what makes it attractive to local residents: Its perceived safety.

“They can be here and not worry about being rousted,” said Kris Palmer, division commander of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s North Patrol. “The issue has gotten more acute. People congregate for food and money. They go where it’s safe and lit.”

Numbers for homeless people in Sacramento – and Carmichael, in particular – are hard to come by as countywide efforts to address the issue are changing. Just this year, Palmer said, his deputies have done “a 180” on dealing with homeless people. Weary of arresting people and finding them right back in the same doorways, alleys and abandoned buildings, Palmer said deputies have tried a different approach.

They are partnering with Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency working with homeless people in the county. Instead of simply rousting people, Palmer said his deputies are working with the organization to identify homeless people they can get off the street and into housing.

“We were just chasing our tails,” Palmer said. “It’s a complete paradigm shift in the last year to year and a half. We’re trying to figure out the best methods to get people off the street.”

Word of this new strategy has not filtered out broadly to Carmichael’s business community, some of whose members have grown weary of the impacts of the local homeless population.

Davis said he has paid tens of thousands of dollars in repairs because of stolen copper wiring and other damage to his property. Soon, he hopes to open Milagro – a culinary hub with restaurants and shops, similar to the Ferry Building or Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. He figures he will have to hire extra security for a homeless issue he didn’t anticipate at the project’s outset. “It’s too bad that I have to have that expense,” he said.

Other business owners recount recurring issues of vandalism and anxious encounters with people struggling with mental health issues. Caryn Conway, the owner of Magnolia Antiques on Fair Oaks Boulevard, wrote a first-person account of her experiences in a recent issue of the Carmichael Times.

“On July 31, a homeless man entered the store and terrorized the customers,” she wrote. “We asked him to leave, but he refused. He then became enraged when we called the (sheriff) and began spitting at our staff. He finally left, but there was an 8-year-old girl who began crying hysterically. It’s unlikely those customers will ever come back.”

Conway wrote that when she arrived at her business the next morning, someone had defecated on her door and left a pile of dirty clothes.

Linda Melody of the Carmichael Chamber of Commerce said her group is gathering its members next month to discuss the issue amid rising concern.

Maya Wallace, director of external affairs at Sacramento Steps Forward, said her agency has placed nine homeless people from the Carmichael area into permanent housing since March, and is working on getting the proper documentation for 24 more.

As it happens, Wallace was in Carmichael on Friday because she had heard from so many people about their increasing frustration. She said Sacramento Steps Forward hopes to use technology and data to match homeless people with services in the near future. Its staffers will assess homeless folks in the field and determine what documents are needed to place them where they should be.

It’s hard work. In the meantime, a suburban community wrestles with a very urban problem.