Homeless—and in hiding: South Sacramento encampment provided secret refuge for years. No wonder it had to go.

Sacramento’s lead homeless agency was unaware of vacant field occupied by large Southeast Asian population, sex workers and others

A large, vacant field south of the city was home to at least 45 homeless people on July 26, when authorities dispersed the encampment.

A large, vacant field south of the city was home to at least 45 homeless people on July 26, when authorities dispersed the encampment.

Photo courtesy of Kristen DiAngelo

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the August 25, 2016, edition.

Kristen DiAngelo and Julie Debbs plot carefully through the rutted field, baked into a hard canvas of crabgrass and ankle-snapping knots by an inescapable summer sun. Weeping sweat and gasping in the hot, flat air, the two activists feel the eyes peering at them through blue tarps and plastic coverings that enclose a vein of shabby tents, tucked behind a dirt ridge in a commercial section of south Sacramento.

“It’s OK,” DiAngelo calls out in a friendly voice. “We brought food.”

Slowly, the denizens of this expansive homeless encampment filter out into the open. There are more than a dozen—mostly of Southeast Asian descent, dehydrated and dazed groggy by the sun—but this represents only a third of the people who called this field home and flew under the radar of Sacramento County’s lead homeless agency.

Or at least they used to.

Just weeks after this scene, on July 26, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department dispersed the encampment, whose existence has been a poorly kept secret for years. According to the county, 45 people were contacted and offered services during an operation that evicted them from the vacant lot and bulldozed their tents and belongings.

Unsurprisingly, only a handful accepted those services.

County officials told SN&R that two people received bus passes and that two others were referred to nearby food closets. Some denizens were also handed cards by a representative of Sacramento Steps Forward, the region’s primary engine for addressing homelessness. But the cards had typos, and the people who called the listed number for help were greeted by an error message.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a great number,” said “May,” who lived in the field for four months after her parents died and she and her sister could no longer make the rent. (Because they fear reprisals for sharing their stories, SN&R is identifying the camp’s residents by pseudonyms.)

This being DiAngelo’s first true encounter with Sacramento County’s system of homeless care—as founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s local chapter, she mostly deals with hospitals and law enforcement—she found herself bewildered and incensed: How does kicking these people out of the only safe place they knew get them closer to housing? And how inept is a system that can’t even get its own phone extension right?

“They say it’s a code violation, an infraction, like jaywalking,” DiAngelo said of the county’s justification for clearing the encampment. “But I don’t see them bulldozing a jaywalker’s house.”

The county termed the operation an “outreach effort.”

Meanwhile, Steps Forward is still learning of encampments like these, spread throughout the county, far from basic services and populated by people who fear the very kind of “outreach effort” that forced this latest exodus.

The camp’s existence tells a shameful story—that Sacramento’s homeless population is vaster, more diverse and more poorly served than previously known.

No wonder it had to go.

“All they did was disperse them,” DiAngelo said. “Nothing changed. In fact, they’re just worse off.”

May arrived in the field with her sister roughly five months ago.

A longtime south Sacramento resident whose family is Southeast Asian, May and her sister became homeless some months after their parents died. Her mother went first; she doesn’t say how. Three years ago, her father succumbed to cancer.

May and her sister managed to cobble the mortgage together for four to six months before they ran out of money and were evicted from the family home. They slept in her sister’s car for a spell, but then it broke down.

That’s how they came to the crux of barren land between 51st Avenue and 30th Street.

“As soon as my dad died, my world just flipped,” May, 27, said softly. “I feel I had nobody. But I’m still trying to hang on, y’know? Even though I don’t have a home to go home to.”

In the field, the people made due.

They faked a communal kitchen by repurposing discarded cabinetry and balancing large water thermoses on rickety stands for drink and bath. When they needed to relieve themselves, they walked afield carrying flashlights and shovels. At night, some of the men patrolled the outskirts on gimpy bicycles. And when one of the less stable denizens started a grass and garbage fire, the entire camp rushed to extinguish it.

The camp’s denizens lived in squalid, austere conditions, with no easy access to water or public facilities.

“We have to do it,” explained “Sammy,” who wore a burgundy “Hmong Innovating Politics” T-shirt. “Everybody got to work out to help kill the fire before they show up,” he said, referring to the authorities. “So we glad we did it before they show up.” He pauses. “They show up.”

It was always a matter of time until the outside world came calling.

It was a SWOP client who tipped DiAngelo off to the camp’s existence several months ago.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” she said.

The beaten patch of land lies in unincorporated territory, rimmed by faded auto body shops and fast-food franchises. Amid piles of rank garbage, with no electricity or access to water and public facilities, the field became an imperfect haven for teems of people with nowhere else to go. It served as a known refuge for “working girls” displaced by law enforcement raids or bad situations, DiAngelo learned, but wasn’t exclusive to homeless sex workers. (After the camp was dispersed, however, requests for condoms went up, DiAngelo said, indicating more of the women were engaging in prostitution because of their dire circumstances.)

It wasn’t long before the field developed a tribe. It even had a mayor.

A man of short stature and oversize personality, wearing a soiled dress shirt and slacks rolled up to his knees, he offered tours—and gratitude—to those who brought food and medicine to his people, who lacked both.

DiAngelo, Debbs and other local SWOP members made weekly trips, delivering food, water and emergency supplies. During a May 28 lunch delivery, two homeless women recognized the activists and quickly organized their neighbors into a food line. Dense helpings of spaghetti lasagna were heaped onto paper plates. A shirtless Asian man gallantly shaded Debbs with an upheld umbrella as she battled a garden salad with a wooden spoon. People nodded their thanks and carted extra plates to those who were too weak to join the feast, including a mom and her two developmentally disabled adult sons, who stayed in a far-flung corner of the property.

The ones who spoke English requested water, soap, aspirin. Water, they said again in dry, cracked voices.

Next time, DiAngelo said apologetically. Next time.

A sheriff’s spokesman says the department’s hand was forced by business and resident complaints made through its website. But Lt. Tim Curran says the department’s problem-oriented policing team was aware of the field’s use as a homeless encampment for a time before that. “That’s been going on for years,” he told SN&R.

But it wasn’t really on Steps Forward’s radar until the agency was invited to send a navigator to assist in the July 26 operation. “It sounds like a population that was fairly concealed,” said Steps Forward Executive Director Ryan Loofbourrow.

Five days before the operation, sheriff’s deputies posted dispersal notices to each tent, photographing them to confirm delivery. On the day of, the county dispatched a pair of social workers and a mental-health clinician, but most of the camp’s residents declined their offers of aid. They were told to grab what they could and leave. Most of their possessions—tents, water containers and other gear—were promptly steamrolled by tractors.

Sammy got out with a few clothes, his bike and deodorant. He lost everything else.

“When I go back, all gone,” Sammy said. “All buried underground.”

This was the group’s first encounter with Sacramento’s “continuum of care.”

It was a year ago this month that Steps Forward hired someone to conduct homeless outreach in the area surrounding this camp.

This “homeless navigator” was specifically assigned to work with property and business improvement districts along Mack and Florin roads. Since that effort began, the Mack Road Partnership has been learning of an emerging homeless population in the south area, said Executive Director Jenna Abbott.

“We see a lot of new faces,” she said. Abbott says the navigator reports of making new contacts, rather than encountering a static population. “He’s seeing people that he hasn’t seen before.”

Anecdotally, Loufbourrow and Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, are hearing similar accounts from other corners. Community representatives and local politicians have reported increased homelessness far outside the downtown core, they say, including in the north county suburbs, blighted commercial sectors and the rural outskirts.

As for what may be causing the surge, there are multiple hypotheses.

Erlenbusch believes that construction of the downtown arena is forcing homeless residents to migrate further from downtown’s core of social services. Loofbourrow’s staff has suggested the warm weather may play a factor in homeless people being more visible. Abbott says the homeless residents encountered by her partnership’s navigator come from the immediate area.

“This is their community,” she said.

What is clear is that the system is struggling to serve the population it already knows about.

According to a June report from Steps Forward, only 6 percent of the 3,477 homeless individuals who applied for housing services during the past 18 months actually received some type of housing. But the numbers are actually worse, as another 700 fell off the queue after 90 days and weren’t counted toward the totals, Erlenbusch said.

Meanwhile, the discovery of hidden homeless communities could increase as Steps Forward hires additional navigators to go out and make first contact. Steps Forward is averaging about 200 intakes each month, Loofbourrow said.

“They’re not newly homeless,” he added. “They’re just new to us.”

But once discovered, where can they go?

“The ultimate question is, ’Navigate to where?’” Erlenbusch asked. “There’s no housing.”

Around the same time as the Steps Forward report, the Sacramento County grand jury urged officials to declare a homelessness state of emergency. The reason the jury gave was because, despite efforts of Steps Forward and its partners, homelessness had “only gotten worse.”

Seated beside each other in the shade of a tent delicately curated with lavender blankets, May and Sammy swipe at the incessant afternoon flies. Around them, their relatives and neighbors busy themselves in their new home, crouched behind an island of trash and loose branches just off a busy south Sacramento thoroughfare.

The group found this spot after vacating the lot on 51st and, a few days later, being rousted from an area near railroad tracks by city police. Like the old lot, it’s another dead field, lacking water and electricity, wedged between an automotive shop and a psychic. But it’s also smaller and more visible to outsiders.

“The cops come often,” May said. “And most of us, we don’t really know our rights, you know? If they say, ’Do this,’ then we would do [what they say]. Even though we’re not on probation or nothing, if they want to search us, we wouldn’t know how to say no.”

This group is vulnerable to pressure tactics and shakedowns.

When they first arrived, a man already living on the property charged them $5 a head, saying he had an arrangement with the property’s owner and could buy them a month without hassles. They paid up.

Two weeks ago, the police came and patted people down, took pictures. They didn’t protest.

And last Thursday morning, a man arrived in a pickup truck and told them he had been hired to clear the field of its loose lumber. But he pitched them a deal: If they performed the labor, he wouldn’t call the cops on them.

“Basically, we’re doing his job for him,” May said.

By noon that day, they had created one towering pile at the field’s edge. Several massive nests of tangled branches remained. They did this work without pay or water, though they requested the latter. While this falls under the definition of labor trafficking, there would be no police report, no call to the cops.

This group is trying to keep a low profile, avoid trouble, even as the field attracts more people. DiAngelo counted 20 during an August 19 visit. She’s tracked down another 15 people to other locations, including two pregnant women hiding in a different field by the freeway. A navigator has visited this lot, offering help obtaining identification cards and signing up for Medi-Cal. There’s been no real mention of housing, May said, but they’re not even asking for that.

Their requests are spartan. A trash can, a water hose, a little plot of dirt where they won’t be troubled.

“We just need water and the ground—land—that’s it,” she said. “Otherwise, we will take care of ourselves.”