Heavy rain turns homeless camp into island

A group of homeless people was rescued by the Sacramento Fire Department early Tuesday after their camp under the Garden Highway overpass became isolated by rising water levels caused by Monday’s record-setting rain.

Some of those who were trapped were able to get to safety by using an inflatable mattress, but one woman was left stranded on a newly-formed island, according to Sacramento Fire spokesman Chris Harvey. Fire crews were able to reach the woman by boat and escort her to safety.

While there hasn’t been much rain so far this winter, downpours like Monday’s, which dumped 2.38 inches of rain on downtown Sacramento, can quickly affect water levels.

During the course of last year’s torrential rainy season, the Sacramento Fire Department rescued 25 individuals people trapped by rising water, Harvey said, noting that many of the rescues took place within the same general areas near creeks and rivers — popular locations for homeless camps.

The number of unsheltered homeless people living in Sacramento County has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a report released last summer by Sacramento Steps Forward, an agency that coordinates efforts to aid the homeless. An estimated 2,000 of those counted by the survey were found to be living outside, marking the first time more people were known to be living in the elements rather than in emergency housing or shelters.

Joan Burke, director of advocacy at the Loaves and Fishes homeless services complex just north of downtown, said that for those living outside, the privacy afforded by overgrown areas next to the water make rivers an attractive – but dangerous – spot to pitch camp.

“Camping is against the law in the City of Sacramento, so they try to find a more hidden location,” Burke said. “But the best places to camp are also the first to flood when water levels rise.”

At Loaves and Fishes, stories of individuals being trapped by rising water levels have become all too common. Hannah Ozanian, the director of Friendship Park, said that she hears of dozens of cases each year about individuals becoming stranded by floodwaters. It’s a constant concern for Ozanian during the winter months.

“It’s hard to close our gates each day when you know the weather is ahead and you know people are going to be sleeping in puddles,” Ozanian said.

The Sacramento area is expected to start drying out Wednesday, with no more precipitation expected until early next week, according to Mike Kochasic of the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

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