E. coli in the river? Sacramento leaders must face reality and install restrooms

What do cop calls and E. coli have in common? They should both spur us to act on homelessness.

Investigations by The Sacramento Bee have revealed some unsavory realities about life in a region struggling with a major crisis.

First, we learned that Sacramento police received a high number of calls to the Railroad Drive homeless shelter during the 17 months it was open. We also learned human feces are contributing to unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria in the American River, because authorities won’t provide toilets for the people who live along its banks.

None of this should come as a surprise. Neither should we allow the stark realities faced by the most vulnerable people in our community to deter us from trying to solve the problem. If anything, these stories should bolster our commitment to making our city into a place where people don’t have to live in the streets.

Let’s start with calls from the Railroad Drive shelter. More than a quarter of the 800 calls to police were for “suspicious activity,” while about 7 percent were reports of assault. A minuscule number were related to alleged robberies.


Bringing vulnerable people together under one roof results in a higher concentration of not just people, but their struggles. That means more 911 calls in one place, rather than scattered over a larger area. It means crimes that may have been unreported will get called in. That’s a good thing. It means we’re actually dealing with problems, not hiding them.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg put it well when he said, “There are always going to be calls, but this is a difficult population. I would rather have them under a roof getting help.”

We need low-barrier shelters, and we need them in the communities where homeless people already live.

Besides, low-barrier sheltering is a requirement for state funding, and it ensures we don’t exclude the many who need support. The last Point in Time count estimated there are 5,570 homeless people in Sacramento County, but we probably have more. Most of them live in the city. In 2018, 132 died, a surge from the 71 who died in 2016.

Sacramento’s homeless are overwhelmingly people who simply can’t afford a place to live anymore. For years, local leaders resisted solutions, opting instead for denial and delay. Steinberg has done a lot to shift this mentality, but there’s still much work to do.

Which brings us to the feces-clogged American River.

The river is teeming with unhealthy levels of E. coli bacteria. Human feces contribute to the problem. That’s because, without access to sanitary facilities, homeless people living along the river use it as a toilet.

To be clear: Our leaders won’t let homeless people have toilets, which means that the river where millions of people swim and play every year has become a toilet.

The obvious solution: Install some portable toilets.

Local officials resist this simple and sensible idea because, as they told The Bee, toilets have been destroyed in the past.

Some toilets were trashed, so we must settle for our river becoming a soup of fecal bacteria? Surely, there must be some creative way to address the problem that doesn’t involve throwing our hands up in the air and accepting a major public health hazard as the only possible outcome.

As we finally confront the crisis of homelessness in our community, we must be prepared to come face to face with some hard realities and tough choices.

Will providing shelter for the homeless be simple and uncomplicated? No, but it’s the right thing to do.

Will providing toilets along the river in order to keep the river cleaner be easy and problem free? No, but it’s better for the health and safety of all of us.

We’re in a tough position. If local leaders talk in circles about why they can’t take action, we will never move forward.

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