Rousted once again: As politicians fiddle, Sacramento County’s homeless population revealed to be much bigger than previously estimated

Camp raid pushes people and belongings to other side of bike trail

On April 28, Sacramento County rangers and probationers cleared a homeless encampment along the creek. The operation occurred three days after the Sacramento City Council delayed a vote on a proposed safe ground for homeless residents.

On April 28, Sacramento County rangers and probationers cleared a homeless encampment along the creek. The operation occurred three days after the Sacramento City Council delayed a vote on a proposed safe ground for homeless residents.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

The Bobcat’s scoop shovel crashed into a line of camping gear, litter churning as a gnarled pretzel of aluminum poles and bike frames was hoisted high against the breeze.

“You better move your tent or they gonna take it,” a probationer on the work crew called out, sauntering along the top of the levee in his sagging pants and neon-orange vest.

A man and woman labored to yank their tent stakes from the ground. Having cut up a plastic shelter 30 feet from them, the Bobcat rumbled straight for their camp. The couple managed to pry the rods out, but couldn’t slip the collapsible poles from the canvas before the backhoe moved in. Grabbing the tent from opposite sides and lifting it like a wind sail, they tripped across the bike path down through the weeds on the far bank.

For now, their meager home was spared. Many others weren’t.

Every makeshift shelter and lean-to facing Steelhead Creek’s side of the levee was destroyed. Every tent and pile of belongings hurried several strides over the bike trail was spared.

For Sacramento County’s homeless residents, this seemingly arbitrary game of cat and mouse is getting old.

Ramona Jasper watched her friends dash by with armloads of stuff. She lowered her head. “I’m so tired of this life,” she said, the tears welling up. “I’m just so tired.”

It’s a life that afflicts thousands more than the public has been led to believe, SN&R has learned.

According to figures obtained by this newspaper, Sacramento County had 13,362 homeless people enrolled in a special food-assistance program this past March that allows them to use their CalFresh benefits at participating restaurants.

The new figure is more than five times higher than the 2,659 county residents who were said to have experienced homelessness on any given night in 2015.

The smaller number comes from a federally required point-in-time count that occurs on a single winter night every other January, when volunteers armed with clipboards venture out to try to approximate the scale of the suffering.

These PIT counts are widely believed to underestimate the actual number of homeless residents, but they’re performed because the results determine how much money each community receives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Besides, homelessness advocates and service providers had never had the hard data to prove the counts were off. Now, they do.

“I never believed the point-in-time count—I don’t think anybody believed it was accurate,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “It always undercounted families and it always undercounted youth. But I didn’t think it undercounted adults by a factor of four. That was just really stunning to me.”

“This helps define the scale of the crisis,” Erlenbusch added.

It’s a crisis that has forced city and county leaders to confront a safety net that has allowed so many to fall through it. With politicians on both sides refusing to rescind local laws that make sleeping outdoors a crime, some elected officials are fighting uphill battles to secure land where homeless residents can lodge and access services without fear of arrest or lost possessions.

But the process has been slowed by a game of political calculus. In the meantime, there are more than 13,000 people waiting for their elected representatives to come up with an answer.

The backhoe’s tank tracks rolled toward another camp. Down the levee bank, perched against a graffiti-laced fence under loops of razor wire, Mary Buck kept close to the wavering flames that cracked in her fire pit.

Two days ago, the rangers issued a warning to everyone in the area. Buck followed it by moving her camp down the hill, out of the danger zone.

She’s been homeless for a decade, staying mainly near the city’s waterways after her mother’s death threw her into a spiral. Glancing up at the camps being destroyed, she said she didn’t blame residents who might have complained about the clutter along the trail. She’s also quick to note she doesn’t think the rangers take pleasure in destroying people’s makeshift homes. For Buck, it’s just the way things are.

Asked what will happen to the people living riverside after the dust clears, Buck had a quick response. “Some will stay and just go back on the other side of the creek when they’re done,” she said.

County rangers launched this cleanup action based on a combination of public complaints and concerns about the environmental damage the camps are doing to Sacramento’s creeks and rivers, said Chief Ranger Michael Doane. “These are part of our normal operations to clean up the parkway system,” he told SN&R. “And we were getting a lot of resident complaints around the amount of trash.”

Aided by the wind, the operation itself disseminated trash and debris into the creek.

According to Doane, the reason the rangers allowed homeless campers to move their belongings across the bike trail and leave it there is because that effort showed they really wanted to keep their stuff. People who weren’t around didn’t get that opportunity, he acknowledged.

And it’s still not legal for homeless people to camp on the other side of the trail. They just borrowed a little time.

Jasper and her partner, Anthony Moss, are among the homeless campers who have eagerly awaited news of Councilman Allen Warren’s proposed triage community, a barracks-style encampment where those on the streets would have running water, sanitation, storage facilities and counseling services. Most of all, they would have the peace of mind in knowing they wouldn’t face mornings like this.

Warren has stressed the project could give individuals the stability to get back on their feet. A similar proposal is in the early stages at the county level, which Supervisor Patrick Kennedy called “critical.”

Yet, just three days before Sacramento County park rangers and the Probation Department’s work crew cleared a long line of camps, the Sacramento City Council again delayed voting on the triage community for the second time since March.

Jasper looked down the levee bank, staring at her own tent. The sound of the Bobcat shovel scraping gravel grew louder. This has been Jasper’s existence for more than a year. There’s no safety here—and still no sanctuary to go to.

Warren looked confident behind the dais as his field representative, Daniel Savala, took the podium, flanked by local architect Karen West and Steve Watters of First Step Communities. The council member’s team had been advised the previous month to return with a more in-depth view of what its proposed triage community would look like. On April 25, they were ready to deliver.

However, shortly into the presentation, Mayor Darrell Steinberg demanded they speed things along to get to public comment. The mayor, who earlier proposed allowing churches to shelter homeless people year-round, was soon chastised by residents for being rude.

Nevertheless, in the brief time they had, Warren’s staff, along with West and Watters, were able to paint a detailed picture of what they hoped to do in Johnston Park. The current proposal involves a fenced-in, 120-day facility with community rules, constant staffing and expert case workers. Under the proposal, Watters’ nonprofit would operate it.

The project would cost, at most, $285,000 to house 100 people, though Warren stressed the price tag would be lower after assistance from local churches, nonprofits and philanthropists factored in. He added that nonprofit outfits as far away as Utah were pledging support for the triage community.

“This has the ability to bring a lot of people together, across cultures and religions, to really show what this city can do,” Warren said.

Steinberg continued to express reservations, though he had a direct message for Watters: “Your involvement gives me some comfort that this could actually be something other than the stereotype that we all fear.”

The mayor didn’t elaborate. Instead, Steinberg suggested the council could not responsibly support the project until a number of safety concerns had been addressed, including how the site would provide potable water, access to emergency responders, an adequate number of fire extinguishers and a policy on nonflammable tents.

In the past, Steinberg has expressed more enthusiasm for his plan to reallocate public housing resources over the next two years. Referring to the PIT count estimate of less than 2,700 homeless residents, Steinberg has told audiences his plan would make a significant dent in Sacramento’s homelessness crisis. But that is no longer true.

Sacramento is one of eight counties participating in CalFresh’s Restaurant Meals Program. The program allows Calfresh recipients to use their EBT cards at participating restaurants, but only those who are either homeless, disabled or over the age of 60 qualify.

The fact that this little-known program had more than 13,000 homeless participants in March suggested a new baseline, said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Youth Homeless Project. “This number is representative only of the people willing and able to jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to receive nutrition assistance,” Hyatt wrote in an email. “This is especially difficult for folks without a consistent mailing address.”

As for Warren’s planned sanctuary, his staff will need to come back with yet more revisions.

“I was fully prepared to take a vote tonight,” Warren confessed at last week’s meeting.

Three days later, Moss was like the can that was kicked down the road. He rolled up his sleeves, preparing to drag the tent he and Jasper occupied somewhere—anywhere—out of the path of the backhoe.

“I knew this was coming and I just couldn’t get any sleep last night,” Moss said. “They keep doing things like this, and there’s just no rest out here. I know they keep talking about this thing at Johnston Park, but what about right now? Where do people go at this moment?”