Homeless in the Parkway

Another good article from the Sacramento News & Review about the homeless in the Parkway, but closing with the usual lament that it’s all about affordable housing, which it’s not, it’s about individual choice and wanting to make it in productive society with hard work and accepting responsibility, rather than not.

An excerpt.

Mark Bell knows downtown.

He knows who lives where, and what they do. The medication they’re on, what they wear and when they practice piano. And he really knows the state workers: Their cigarette breaks, their quirks. The empty six-pack of Olde English 800 tallboys thrown into the trash each week at the CalPERS north building, or the empty bottles of vodka outside CalPERS south. Today, he’ll find a pint of vodka spirited into the trash outside of the secretary of state building.

He knows.

Mark spends most his days shuffling about town, scanning bins for aluminum cans and ashtrays for half-smoked cigarettes (“snipes,” he calls them). He says he appreciates when people speak with him. It reminds him they care. When folks share with him a piece of their lives, he remembers. Carries it like a souvenir. He gleans much from Sacramento.

And today, he’s brought me along. I have no wallet, money or keys. No sources of income or sustenance. All I’ve got are some old, dirty clothes; a flashlight; a rickety mountain bike; a cellphone; and, at my homeless friends’ recommendation, a sleeping bag and tent. For the next four days, I’ll be joining Bell and other homeless Sacramentans on the streets.

What is it like to shower with 60 strange men and sleep in a shelter bed? Why is it best to hunt for cans at 3 a.m.? Where can a homeless person spend the afternoon without getting into trouble? And why do they add so much sugar to the coffee at Loaves & Fishes Friendship Park?

This week, I will camp on the American River Parkway with a street family, check in for an evening at the Union Gospel Mission and earn my keep rustling through downtown garbage bins. I’m still a tourist, of course; it’s all manufactured. I can end this game at any moment, go back to my apartment and job.

The people next to me in the food lines and emergency shelters aren’t afforded that luxury.

My campout on the river

Terry wakes and calls out, “Good morning, campers.”

It’s 5:45 a.m. A family’s tent rests under a drooping tree canopy on the American River Parkway. About 100 feet away, Highway 160 rumbles to life. It’s chilly, unusual for late July.

Of the five men and women in this camp, only two are related by blood. But make no mistake: These folks are family.

“You know how they say that there’s safety in numbers? That’s a fact of life out here.” This was perhaps the first thing that Terry, the deep-voiced, imposing patriarch explained after he and his girlfriend, Lisa, agreed to let me camp with them this week.

Life on the streets brings risks, such as theft, physical assault or worse. To combat these dangers, homeless singles form groups. Often, they build a rapport so strong that they begin to refer to one another as family….

The largest challenge for the area’s homeless and almost-homeless residents is simple: Sacramento must find a way to bridge the gap. Between income and rent. Between need and services.

But then, even after finding work, or getting set up with disability or some other form of assistance, residents continue to find that there are simply not enough reasonably priced places to stay. Today, both the federal government and Sacramento are pushing to create more affordable housing. Unfortunately, this will take time.

“There’s a cure to homelessness,” insists Burke. “It’s called enough housing to go around that people can afford and that fits them.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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