Sacramento County chief ranger explains dilemma of homeless enforcement on American River Parkway

Sacramento County Chief Ranger Michael Doane explains the challenges with enforcing a ban on camping along the American River Parkway.
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Sacramento County Chief Ranger Michael Doane explains the challenges with enforcing a ban on camping along the American River Parkway.
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Will cleaning up the American River Parkway send more homeless people into the suburbs?

By Ellen Garrison

egarrison@sacbee.com

June 17, 2017 03:59 AM

Piles of garbage, used needles and human feces from homeless campers. County leaders agreed this past week that such refuse is unacceptable, whether along the cherished American River Parkway or on residential streets and sidewalks.

But can the county crack down on parkway camping without pushing more homeless people into neighborhoods?

County supervisors launched a vigorous and unusually frank debate that will continue into the summer as they jockey for more funding to address homelessness and resident complaints.

Supervisor Phil Serna, who represents a large portion of Sacramento, including the lower half of the American River Parkway where homeless camps are concentrated, wants about 37 new park rangers, maintenance workers and animal control officers along the troubled riverbank. He envisions six patrol teams with social service workers and county prosecutors.

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In 2016, park rangers cited about half as many homeless people for illegal camping compared to the previous year, drawing complaints from parkway visitors. In one instance this year, a bike commuter ended up in the hospital after being attacked by two off-leash dogs on the parkway. And recently, three bicyclists were hit with rocks on the parkway by men they believe are homeless.

“This has to be the year that we take a big, bold step,” Serna said.

“We have taken tiny little baby steps out of the recession, and I think for good reason,” he told his colleagues. “I think the responsible thing to do is to take that bold step at the same time that we’re taking other bold steps to add capacity so we can answer the question ‘Where will they go?’ 

Pushback came from Supervisor Susan Peters, who said parkway enforcement will send homeless campers into the adjacent neighborhoods, which are already struggling under an increasing population of people on the streets. Peters, whose district stretches along the American River from Arden Arcade to Fair Oaks, said one of her constituents recently tackled a homeless man who walked right into his house.

The region’s homeless population became more visible in residential areas this winter after heavy winter rains forced homeless campers out of the lower reaches near Discovery Park. Even before the storms, Arden Arcade residents complained that they were seeing more homeless people in their neighborhoods than before.

Last summer, residents pushed to shut down a recycling center at Watt and El Camino avenues that they blamed for people scavenging through their household bins. In 2014, the county banned aggressive panhandling in response to complaints from suburban business owners and residents.

“When this invasion by homeless campers began in the unincorporated area is when the county started heavy efforts in the parkway,” Peters said. “If we’re going to talk about moving money out of other departments into clean up, I would rather spread it over all the areas that we represent, not just the parkway.”

“I love the parkway. I use it. It’s in my will,” she said. “But I just think we can’t have a single-minded focus on this.”

Supervisors this week passed a $4 billion county budget without the additional $4 million for parkway enforcement Serna wanted. They asked county staff to come up with three plans that address illegal camping throughout the county at different funding levels – $3 million, $4 million or $5 million.

This year’s county budget includes $6.2 million for a comprehensive plan to house the homeless. Part of the plan is a shelter modeled after a successful San Francisco system that would target homeless people who are hardest to serve – those with mental illness or who refuse to use traditional shelters because they fear having to abandon partners, belongings and pets.

The shelter would accommodate up to 75 people at a time, aiming to serve 300 people each year. On-site case managers would help residents transition into permanent housing. The earliest the shelter could open is spring 2018.

A 2015 count of the homeless population found 2,659 people without housing in the county. Advocates say that number is far below reality; an updated count from this past winter is expected soon.

Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said the county needs about five of the new shelters to make a dent in the homeless population.

He called Serna’s suggestion a “whack-a-mole” strategy that would simply move homeless people from one spot to another and back again. Increased enforcement of the illegal camping ordinance on the parkway will simply result in a stack of unpaid citations, he said.

Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation, said services have to be in place for the strategy to work, but any additional funding for the parkway is a success for her organization.

“If those programs are in place, then those individuals will be able to go into those facilities and not be on the parkway and not be finding other areas,” she said. “From our perspective ... any additional funds that can be earmarked towards the American River Parkway – whether it’s for trash cleanup, rangers, fire fuel reduction ... is a win-win for the community.”

John Hoffman, president of the Country Club Alliance of Neighborhoods in the Arden area, said he’s heard complaints from residents about confrontations over recyclables in their backyards and from business owners who have people sleeping and defecating in their doorways.

But he also said the American River Parkway is a natural wonder and a tourist destination that some people no longer use because they feel unsafe.

“Of course I’m conflicted in that I realize they have to be somewhere,” he said. “I would rather have them out of the parkway than out of the neighborhoods ... Out of sight is not out of mind. It’s still an issue we need to deal with.”

On the five-member board, Peters, Supervisor Patrick Kennedy and Supervisor Sue Frost weren’t convinced by Serna’s arguments to expand parkway enforcement. Supervisor Don Nottoli suggested directing money toward both issues – for the parkway and for cleanup in the neighborhoods.

Supervisors agreed to revisit the issue in July once staff reports back.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison