Riverbed fellows

Homeowners and advocates agree: to save the American River, give homeless people bathrooms and shelter

Sally Dunbar, one of the American River Parkway’s mile stewards, says she feels a responsibility to leave the world a better place for her grandson, which includes cleaning a stretch of the river.

Sally Dunbar, one of the American River Parkway’s mile stewards, says she feels a responsibility to leave the world a better place for her grandson, which includes cleaning a stretch of the river.

Photo by Michael Mott

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.
This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

Sally Dunbar hiked across a verdant meadow along the American River until a blue flap gave her pause. “Wait,” Dunbar said, eying the tent. The 66-year-old grandmother and realtor pulled out her smartphone and dropped a location “pin” using Sacramento 311’s app.

Volunteer river stewards like Dunbar intend for this information to reach Sacramento County rangers tasked with citing people who illegally camp along the shore. Rangers received 35 of those alerts in January, county figures show, and handed out 260 tickets.

It’s not like homeless people have many legal places to go instead. City and county officials haven’t reopened warming centers since last March, leaving 383 beds for the thousands of people sleeping on streets or along waterways.

Recent storms didn’t result in temperatures dipping below the three-day, 32-degree threshold that triggers the centers to open. However, emergency staff can open them for other reasons, like the hail that blanketed Sacramento in late February or last week’s storms, the heaviest this year. There were no requests to do so, said county spokesperson Janna Haynes.

As a state water quality board investigates whether troubling E.coli levels in the river were caused by feces from animals or humans, the absence of shelter and a lack of public restrooms along the American River Parkway has formed common ground between advocates for the homeless and the residents who grumble about their messy footprint.

Woodlake Neighbors Creating Transparency, a neighborhood alliance in north Sacramento, has confronted the City Council and county Board of Supervisors with a series of requests. The group has asked politicians to create temporary sites where homeless people can legally camp; to put trash cans, restrooms and showers near encampments; to fast-track new housing for the homeless; and to declare a shelter crisis, something homeless advocates have been requesting for years.

“We’re only helping 12-to-15 percent of unhoused people. There’s still at least hundreds of people in the hail and rain,” said Woodlake resident Jane Macauley. “My preference would be to open up warming centers in every zip code. Why don’t the city and county partner so each district opens an emergency shelter?”

Thus far, the group hasn’t received an answer. It remains to be seen whether politicians treat these homeowners the same way they’ve treated the advocates—by ignoring them.

After getting no response following their City Council appearance, Woodlake residents brought their recommendations to county supervisors on February 27. They showed videos of encampments large and small dotting the parkway.

“We want to pretend we don’t have tent cities. … But we do, we have many, many of them,” said Nancy Kitz, who belongs to the Woodlake group as well as Eye on Sacramento, a government watchdog that joined in this effort.

Supervisor Phil Serna thanked the residents and asked for a report on the value of declaring a shelter crisis, which homelessness advocates have long called for to free up disaster-level funding and lift building restrictions that would make it easier to erect housing.

Serna, whose district includes the parkway, spoke against providing more public restrooms and showers, saying they would encourage more homeless people to come to the area and worsen environmental impacts.

“It tugs on your heartstrings to see folks use 5-gallon buckets as toilets and having to bathe in the river,” Serna said. “But we have to be very thoughtful about how we’re going to provide resources people obviously need. … Give us a chance.”

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said officials have had enough time. He praised the city for “shaming” the county into investing millions into a pilot health program aimed at reducing homelessness over the next three years.

The county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness expired in 2016.

“You can’t scream about issues like Hep. A or E.coli and not provide 24-hour bathrooms and some dignity,” Erlenbusch said. “The county has doubled down on giving citations. The city has real political will to address this, but not the county.”

In August, supervisors approved spending $5 million to roust homeless people from the river. Along with the 260 people cited in January, another 196 people were cited for not paying park fees. Rangers also cleared 208 camps and removed 175 tons of debris, according to the Sacramento County Regional Parks system. Rangers did make some interesting discoveries, recovering two loaded shotguns from an illegal camper on the lower parkway and finding several items of abandoned property at Cherry Island Golf Course. The county considers homeless people’s property abandoned if they’re away from it for 48 hours.

Supervisor Don Nottoli nearly shook in calling for another $5 million to maintain the parkway if necessary.

“That filth is shameful. Shame on us. And shame on them for doing it. We saw pictures like this last summer,” he said. “I want to have that debate in these chambers. To, one, help those people; and two, clean up the mess.”

The county will spend $3 million this year to clear camps, up from $500,000 in 2014, according to a report the county provided the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board. The board’s report on what’s causing the elevated E.coli levels in the American River is due back in a year.

At the city level, Sacramento Mayor Darryl Steinberg has suggested keeping a temporary shelter on Railroad Drive open beyond March 31. Officials are considering opening a second shelter in north Sacramento, which has prompted the Woodlake group and Eye on Sacramento to question why other parts of the city aren’t being considered.

Outside of the city’s triage shelter, which offers 200 beds by referral only, the county funds the existence of approximately 183 emergency shelter beds for single adults, 91 beds for families and six for transition-aged youth.

Councilmen Jeff Harris and Eric Guerra, whose districts include parts of the parkway, say 24/7 triage services are needed.

Harris, who has lobbied his council colleagues on allocating money to have attendants monitor public restrooms—with minimal success—said he’ll be bringing the proposal back later this month.

Erlenbusch, who works near the river and sees hundreds of tents arrayed along the shore line, suggests any blame should be put on the politicians, not people with no place to go.

“If they’re not going to put more money into emergency shelters before providing affordable housing, at least they can provide homeless people the dignity of bathrooms and clean water,” he said. “Don’t blame homeless people [for] trash when you don’t provide receptacles and there’s E.coli in the water.”

Dunbar has monitored a 1-mile stretch of the American River for only a few weeks, but has lived by it for 39 years. A breast cancer survivor, she often walks it to raise money for breast cancer research. Last year, her team “Hands up for Hooters” gathered 101 of her friends and colleagues to raise $530,000.

Last month, though, was her first trip to the river since she “adopted” a mile of the parkway to watch over as a volunteer steward. Wanting to see the largest issues affecting the river, she followed a guide through an abandoned camp that used to house at least eight people before rangers cleared it, she said. Walking near the San Juan rapids, Dunbar saw needles and trash strewn everywhere. She’d only expected to pick up cigarette butts and flag graffiti. Instead, when she and 24 neighbors showed up one Saturday in February, they hauled 2,500 pounds of various debris in 80 to 90 bags by her estimate.

“I know there will be more camps to clean up,” Dunbar said, sounding resolved. “This is a natural resource. We need to protect it.”

Jordan Powell, the American River Parkway Foundation’s volunteer coordinator, said county parks crews clean up the majority of the trash, which he says originates from recreational users as well as homeless people. He said 5,000 to 6,000 foundation volunteers pick up the rest and perform other conservation measures.

Last winter’s torrential rains brought the American River to historic levels, chasing homeless campers from flooded riverbanks into more visible urban centers, according to a point-in-time report from Sacramento State University and Sacramento Steps Forward. The flooding also caused soil erosion that may be contributing to animal feces ending up in the river.

Powell said he wasn’t sure if the river has been impacted by camping or foreign debris. But, speaking only as a Sacramento resident, he said the parkway is a poor alternative to a lack of shelter.

“The parkway is not a good answer to the lack of beds. That’s where the enforcement attitude comes from county parks, and why we need to really take a hard look at what we’re willing to invest in,” he said. “Until then, our stewards will roll up their sleeves and help out.”

Days after Dunbar’s tour, campfires dotted the river near downtown, alighting dozens of tents and maybe hundreds of people.