Chock-full of garbage, human feces and used needles, the lower half of the American River Parkway is a disgusting mess. The hundreds of homeless people who camp there are destroying what should be a beautiful natural resource for all Sacramentans to enjoy.
It’s a problem. On this, everyone can agree.
The question is how to solve it. And the answer is not the plan before the Sacramento County Supervisors on Wednesday.
Supervisor Phil Serna would have the county spend up to $5 million to hire more park rangers, animal control workers and maintenance staff to crack down on illegal campers and clean up the mess they leave behind.
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“It will represent a historic, bold step to finally prioritize the parkway the same way it is appreciated,” he told The Bee’s Marcos Breton.
The reasons it won’t work are abundantly clear.
At the top of the list is the law. Like it or not, the county is at a disadvantage. As much as cyclists and joggers might demand it, authorities can’t force homeless people off the parkway. It’s public land. They also can’t destroy campsites or seize the property of homeless people without notice.
Supervisor Sue Frost was right when she wrote: “While we can make the homeless move their camps, they will simply move somewhere else along the parkway.”
What authorities can do is issue tickets to homeless people for camping or having a pit bull that’s not on a leash. Or, if there’s an outstanding warrant for some other unaddressed infraction, they can make them spend a night in jail or order them to do community service.
Thinking that will change with more park rangers is pure fiction.
What’s more, park rangers aren’t cheap. A good chunk of the $5 million would go toward their salaries. Plus, there’s already high turnover among rangers, so hiring them won’t be easy and it doesn’t mean they’ll stay.
Even if park rangers issued more tickets and social workers came along to guide more homeless people to get help, there is no help to speak of.
There aren’t enough shelters or housing, and with 2,000 people sleeping outdoors every night, the county’s plan for a 75-bed shelter won’t make much of a dent. Plus, underfunded county mental health and addiction programs have weeks-long waiting lists.
That gives homeless people few options but the parkway. And if the park rangers do manage to chase them away, they’ll likely camp under equally unsafe highway bridges or in other neighborhoods.
For protectors of the parkway, that might be good enough. But there is a more effective way to restore the parkway and help homeless people.
Supervisors should use a carrot, not a stick. Give homeless people a reason to leave the parkway.
Instead of investing millions of dollars into hiring park rangers, invest in more shelter beds, and mental health and addiction services. And free up existing park rangers to focus on the real crimes homeless people commit, like hitting cyclists in the head with bricks.
There’s nothing wrong with reserving some money to hire maintenance workers. There’s plenty of garbage to haul away. But supervisors would be wise to remember it took years for the parkway to get so gross. There is no quick fix.