Camping on the River, Illegally

In this article from the Guardian—giving the Parkway’s illegal camping international attention—be sure to check the pictures after the jump as they tell the story the narrative only hints at.

An excerpt.

Life on the American river: Mark Twain romance, or false hope for the homeless?

Hundreds without housing in California have made their home on the shady banks of the American river. But the bucolic scene belies a darker reality

Richard Dean heaved his bike and trailer across the bridge, away from the city, and followed a dirt track through scrub until reaching a patch of shaded riverbank.

It was approaching 100F (37C) but Dean, sweating and panting, was upbeat. “This is a good workout. And we have the best air-conditioning in the world. It’s called the American river.”

The wiry 50-year-old unleashed his dog, Shunka, extracted a foldable chair from the cart and settled in for a serene afternoon under pecan and dogwood trees. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was home.

Dean, who goes by the nickname Syphy, is part of a largely invisible homeless population camped by the reeds and bushes lining the American river just outside Sacramento, California’s capital. They come for the seclusion and opportunity to live on their own terms.

They are not the first. Nisenan Indians settled here 5,000 years ago. Itinerant miners built shacks during the 1840s gold rush, followed by families displaced during the Great Depression. Now it is the turn of hundreds of modern outcasts with pets, bicycles, tents and tarpaulin.

“It’s so nice out here. I don’t consider myself homeless, I just live outside,” said Julie Pacheco, 48, seated in a bramble patch. “I don’t take any [government] assistance. I’d rather be a camping gypsy,” she said.

Pacheco had turned her little clearing, hidden from the river by blackberry bushes and almond trees, into a dwelling with two tents, a fire pit, a chair, a flowerpot and a stack of magazines and books, including Shirley MacLaine novels and a Ronald Reagan biography. She shared it with Annie, a terrier-chihuahua.

“I’ve got some Angus steaks marinating,” said Pacheco. “I’ll cook them tonight with mesquite to give them a barbecue taste.”

‘They seem to be hiding’

These clandestine denizens appear to occupy a relatively benign corner of the US homelessness crisis: a bucolic landscape with owls and beavers and a river where they can bathe, fish and live much like Huckleberry Finn. Some do – cooling in the water, hooking trout, exploring waterways with canoes.

Appearances deceive. Look closer and any sense of romantic idyll dissolves. The same forces driving homelessness from New York to Los Angeles – poverty, mental illness, addiction – waft through the reeds and oleander. The river is no refuge. It’s a trap.

Those who call it home can spend months, years, even decades in a netherworld closer to Trainspotting than Mark Twain.

Many abuse drugs, especially methamphetamine nicknamed crank, transforming them into toothless, hollow-cheeked vagabonds with nervous systems so fried they constantly fidget, earning the nickname tweakers. They survive not through wilderness resourcefulness but private charity, food stamps and welfare checks which land around the start of each month, expressed in the term “the eagle shits on the first”.

“It hits you in the face,” said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit which feeds hundreds daily in Sacramento. “We have people living in third-world conditions with no access to potable water or sanitation. It’s horrible to see them living in squalor when they truly can’t take care of themselves.”

Newcomers have swollen the population from dozens to hundreds in recent years, compelling some old-timers to move further upriver to escape fear of violence, said Jeff Harris, a city council member.

Anthony Bennett, a park ranger sergeant who heads a seven-strong team in the American River Parkway, a 23-mile environmental jewel, has spent a decade rousting and counseling the homeless. “It’s a bit sad and desperate. They seem to be hiding away from society. It’s not safe, it’s not legal and it’s not healthy. We do what we can to push people towards services and help. But we can’t force them to take it.”

Bennett said rangers strive to keep the parkway clean and safe without persecuting the homeless, who damage the park with litter, wood cutting and fires. “We’re not a swat team or the Gestapo. We treat these people as human beings.”

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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