Cat and ‘river rat’ game

The city's winter-shelter program ends, and homeless campers return to the American River

The number of homeless campers in the Sacramento area is on the rise.

The number of homeless campers in the Sacramento area is on the rise.

photo by dave kempa

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink.

This week, as spring hits Sacramento, and as the city’s winter-shelter program comes to an end, campers are again populating the banks of the American River just north of downtown, with the rangers driving them out on an almost-daily basis. It’s a game of cat and mouse between Sacramento and the “river rats” that’s been going on for years, and homeless advocates argue that it’s still not a solution.

Last Thursday, park ranger David Henry stood watching as a dozen or so men in orange vests stalked along the American River’s south bank, cleaning up debris next to the Highway 160 overpass. Nearby, a woman in her 30s shuffled around inside a tent, preparing to take down her camp; Henry and his colleague had just notified her that she needed to move along or face a fine.

“I don’t really feel bad for most of them,” said Henry, adding that homeless campers have plenty of services provided to them by shelters and churches. And that, for many living in tents and under bridges along the river, their lifestyle is a choice.

It’s a popular choice lately. On the river’s south bank underneath the Highway 160 bridge, a five-tent homeless camp popped up recently. On this day, it sat unattended. Plastic bags, empty soda cans, food wrappers and gutted Christmas advent calendars lay scattered amid the steep hill’s jagged rocks. Stacked near the tents, one could find all kinds of bicycle parts. Piles of tire tubing, bike tires and a lone mountain-bike frame.

Squirrel, here with his dog Porkchop, says he’s been camping along the American River for nearly three years.

photo by dave kempa

A dusty, old motorboat bobbed down on the waterline, anchored to the nearby shore.

Back above the banks, a bearded man with a neck tattoo and a backward baseball hat pedaled by on his bicycle, then stopped to survey the men carrying on with the river cleanup. He scoffed at the term “river cleanup.” He’d call it something else.

“Stealing,” he said. “Taking people’s lives.”

The man calls himself Squirrel. A self-proclaimed “river rat,” he’s been camping along the American River for two-and-a-half years with his bulldog mix, Porkchop, acting as companion and guard.

This sort of thing happens almost daily, according to Squirrel. The park rangers sweep through, find the homeless men and women, alert them that they have 48 hours to move or else face a citation, and push along on their way.

Park ranger David Henry said homeless campers have plenty of services provided to them by shelters and for many living in tents and under bridges along the river, their lifestyle is a choice.

photo by dave kempa

According to Steve Watters of Safe Ground Sacramento, a group committed to work with the city to find a sanctioned location for homeless people to live, this isn’t accomplishing anything.

“The cat-and-mouse game they’re playing right now does not allow for any larger encampments,” said Watters. “It keeps them scattered, and by not having a common place, there’s a loss in safety, and a huge loss for them to maintain any system of sanitation.”

Back on the river, Squirrel pointed north to the underpass where the bike path crosses Highway 160.

“Just about every day we meet up down there with our things while the rangers come through,” he said.

They call it “homeless happy hour.” While the rangers scour the area along the American River, Squirrel said that he and others meet up at the underpass to socialize. Some people might pass around a joint, others bring heavier drugs, and they hang out there between about 1:30 p.m. and sunset before going back to the river’s edge and setting up camp again.

Park rangers sweep through the homeless camps along the American River and alert the campers that they have 48 hours to move or else face a citation.

photo by dave kempa

The next day, the cycle starts anew.

Henry and the other rangers didn’t deny the cycle. It’s the same on American River Parkway as it is at Cal Expo and Discovery Park: find a camp, tell them they have 48 hours move. If they don’t move, cite them.

Most often, the homeless can’t pay their citations and will likely not attend their hearings, so many of those cited end up with warrants.

On the occasion that the park rangers check homeless campers for outstanding warrants, they’ll bring them down to the jail and put their belongings into storage.

Interestingly, there are often no hard feelings between the rangers and the river rats. Squirrel conceded that he could not be too mad at the rangers working on the ground for doing their jobs. Henry was respectful to the men and women camping on the river, and told SN&R that his favorite thing about his work was the job security. There was a time, not long ago, when the rangers would try and offer options to the homeless men and women as to where they could move their camps.

But today, it’s turned into a stale process, offering few answers to an issue that won’t go away.

Henry and his colleagues will, on any given day, come across some 125 homeless men and women camped around the American River Parkway. As things get warmer and as programs such as homeless-services nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward’s winter-shelter program, which provides extra beds for the cold months, come to a close, commuters crossing the river recently have noticed an increase in the encampments.

Illegal campers say what they always say: “They tell us to leave, but where do we go?” said Squirrel.

Sacramento isn’t quite sure yet.