Down and out in suburbia: Creek pollution, homeless influx have some South Natomas residents supporting councilman’s tent city

Winter storms pushed city’s homeless residents into suburb’s view

Protesters demonstrate for the right to rest on April 2.

Protesters demonstrate for the right to rest on April 2.

Photo by gavin mcintyre

Julia Richardson pulled her car into a parking lot, hoping to save the life of a man convulsing in her back seat.

He wasn’t a stranger: Nikolai had been homeless in South Natomas for months and often talked to her at the store. On this night, February 17, Richardson spotted Nikolai standing in a cold, hammering rain—the kind of downpour that recently set the stage for three people dying on the streets of Sacramento. Richardson decided to drive Nikolai to one of the city’s warming centers. Yet as soon as he climbed in the back with his dog, Nikolai started having full-body seizures. His head flung back. His eyes rolled white. His limbs shook with tremors.

“I thought he was dying,” Richardson recalled.

Richardson is a disabled senior, but that didn’t stop her from taking action. She delivered Nikolai into the hands of firefighters, collected his possessions and then found a place to board his dog. Two days later, after Nikolai was out of the hospital, Richardson tracked him down, returning his belongings and Chihuahua.

Richardson is among a handful of South Natomas residents who have been getting to know the homeless in their neighborhood. The trend started after people living in Sacramento’s greenbelts were driven out by flooding and pushed onto suburban streets and public avenues. Longtime resident Rowland Reeves acknowledged that when the people of South Natomas first began holding community meetings about the influx, the sentiment was mostly anger about widespread trash, human waste and dog droppings accumulating in their parks. However, as some residents engaged with the homeless one-on-one, their priorities gradually shifted. They learned firsthand about the city’s lack of resources and outreach services. They also noticed that the filth and debris on display in South Natomas’ public space was miniscule compared to the pollution seeping through Steelhead Creek and the Sacramento River from camps on the edge of the water.

These revelations have led some from the community meetings to be in full support of Councilman Allen Warren’s proposal to create a safe, sanitary, outreach-oriented tent encampment in his North Sacramento district, a place that would be an alternative to hiding in the trees.

“When the city and county say they’re not sure if they can have a tent city, the truth is they already have an unofficial one,” Reeves said, “and that’s our parkway, meaning all the trash and waste goes into the river. The same city leaders bill that parkway as the ’jewel of Sacramento,’ but right now it’s the garbage dump and open sewer.”

Invisible no more

Prior to January, South Natomas residents had never seen hundreds of homeless people wandering their streets. According to several homeowners, strangers were suddenly turning up asleep under children’s playground equipment and converting the neighborhood’s barn for birthdays and picnics into a scene piled with trash.

“The river went up, and they had to get out of that area,” said Gary Perdew, a member of the South Natomas group that’s been communicating with the homeless.

Perdew organized a public meeting in February. Homelessness became a main topic of discussion for the 80 people who attended. A handful of residents decided to investigate the situation themselves. One of them was Lisa Lindberg. She started entering the city’s wooded, riparian corners to speak with those living there. Lindberg said she learned there are a lot of intelligent and mentally tough individuals dealing with the outdoors—people she believes could be employable if the city had more affordable housing and better transitional services.

However, Lindberg’s treks through Sacramento’s waterside jungles also showed her the cost of making campers feel like they have to stay out of sight. She discovered large piles of debris floating down Steelhead Creek, right up to the mouth of the Sacramento River: Hundreds of plastic bottles, garbage bags, aerosol cans, ice chests, broken boxes, six-pack containers and empty syringes. Lindberg even took photos of propane tanks and half-assembled bicycles inside the water.

In an independent survey, SN&R walked the banks of Steelhead Creek from Silver Eagle Road to Gateway Oaks Drive, confirming Lindberg’s claims of pollution in the water. SN&R found one of the largest concentrations of buoyant trash near the confluence where Steelhead Creek meets the Sacramento River. Some of the contamination appears to come from camps being directly on the creek and riverbeds, while other elements were caused by camps being in dry areas that were suddenly flooded during the storms.

Piles of trash float from the edge of homeless camps on Steelhead Creek, near the mouth of the Sacramento River.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

SN&R also observed more than 72 occupied tents along the banks of Steelhead Creek.

“It is the most toxic emergency environmental problem I’ve seen in my life,” Lindberg said. “Absolutely, under no circumstances, do I think Discovery Park should be open to the public because it’s so polluted. Even homeless people there have warned not to walk in certain areas of it because of the raw sewage.”

Linberg has filed a complaint about the condition of Sacramento’s waterways with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, she’s hoping Warren’s push to create a safe, low-barrier-of-entry tent encampment with bathrooms, water, showers, kennels and a triage center will give those without shelter a safer, more environmentally sound option. Reeves and Richardson are of the same view.

“This situation has been going on in the greenbelts for years,” Reeves observed. “The only thing unusual is that the storms pushed it out into the open for a brief period.”

‘The outdoor solution’

Warren has advocated for a tent encampment since January. At the March 21 City Council meeting, Warren and his staff unveiled specifics around their proposed “outdoor solution” on an undecided parcel of land in District 2, which encompasses much of Steelhead Creek. South Natomas itself, on the west side of the creek, is primarily Councilman Jeff Harris’ district. Warren described the idea as a temporary safe ground for up to 200 homeless people, funded as public-private partnership that operates on minimal tax dollars. Warren acknowledged that it wasn’t just the homeless death toll—700 dead on Sacramento’s streets between 2002 and 2015—but also the problems that come with camping along the creeks and rivers.

“It would be a facility where people could live without the fear of harassment,” Warren told his fellow council members, “but it would also do something that’s very important for our community, which is to take people off of the levees and waterways.”

Warren added that his planned triage center would be vital to making the tent encampment be a pathway into the kind of long-term, housing-first solutions the city is exploring to combat homelessness.

“We would provide the resources where they could heal,” Warren noted. “Not just physically, but mentally.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who initially called Warren’s idea “provocative,” said he might support the plan now, though only under nebulous conditions that he’s yet to clarify. Warren’s team will present a specific proposal for the city council to vote on soon.

Last week, several people camping along Steelhead Creek told SN&R that if Warren’s tent encampment were created, they would be happy to move into it.

“I would definitely be interested,” said Ramona Jasper, who’s been homeless for a year. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

Jasper lives with Anthony Moss, and the couple keeps a clean, tidy, trash-free campsite at a distance from the water’s edge. The two were struggling paycheck-to-paycheck at a North Sacramento apartment when the building was red-tagged by the city for appalling living conditions that the landlord refused to fix. The city’s move to protect Moss and Jasper from a toxic habitat meant their next living arrangement was a tent top under the wind and rain. Moss told SN&R that some people living outdoors are very careful not to pollute the creek, while others clearly don’t care. He also pointed out that on days like March 31—when high winds are blasting—even the most conscientious campers have to fight to keep items from blowing away. Law enforcement constantly forcing campers to move short distances along the water, but not actually away from it, doesn’t help the garbage situation, Moss said.

Jasper, Moss and those camping near them had not heard of Warren’s planned tent encampment, nor were they aware that the SafeGround StakeDown homeless protest—advocating for their right to rest—was happening in two days’ time.

“We do try to follow the news the best we can,” Moss said. “But, honestly, living out here, the No. 1 concern each day is just surviving.”