This story from the Sacramento Bee from December 20 of last year is another reminder of the ineffective management of the Parkway by Sacramento County and its inability, over a very long period of time, to stop illegal camping in the Parkway.
That people camp on the American River Parkway in violation of county law is well established. What might come as a surprise is just how settled some of them are.
On a December weekday before the last storm, a metal door attached to two trees blocked access to a campsite otherwise surrounded by thick brush. Another site under the 12th Street bridge had a television powered by a generator. Upriver, Fred Gurr had a large cooler, an office chair and other items clustered around his site, which he shares with his black cat, Bug Out.
“I’ve lived here for four years,” said Gurr, a veteran who said he became homeless after losing a job. “I’ve been at the same location the whole time.”
Just last year, county supervisors approved funding to hire more rangers to enforce an illegal camping ban, clean up the parkway and connect homeless people with services. Now, county rangers are ticketing far fewer people for illegal camping, with 602 citations through the end of November, roughly half the pace of the 1,278 issued last year.
Chief Ranger Michael Doane, who took over law enforcement duties in county parks late last year, said he is responsible for the decrease in citations. He said he has called for less enforcement of the illegal camping ordinance because he doesn’t think it has meaningful consequences.
Most offenders perform community service instead of paying a fine, Doane said. Officials with the Public Defender’s and District Attorney’s offices confirmed that is routine.
Doane said he will continue to enforce the camping ordinance and other laws broken by the homeless, but there is only so much he can do.
“Law enforcement can’t solve homelessness,” he said. “You can’t separate out the fact there is a segment of the population who does not want to be homeless and have no place to go.”
The decrease in citations has occurred as fires on the parkway have increased and illegal trash sites have continued to pile up. Statistics from the Sacramento Fire Department and the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District show that 79 fires burned more than 260 acres from January through November, already the most fires and acres burned on the parkway in at least five years. Doane said rangers are increasingly concerned about fire with the weather getting colder, which leads people to build fires for heat.
Large swaths of the parkway have been scorched black and, along with piles of trash and discarded items the homeless want to recycle, have tarnished the 23-mile urban greenway that community leaders often call the “jewel of Sacramento.”
Last year, the county pegged illegal camping costs for rangers, maintenance staff and equipment at $1.1 million. That included having to clean 1,474 trash sites related to illegal camping. The county is responsible for all of the parkway, including the section in the city.
Those figures do not include responses to fires by Metro Fire and the Sacramento Fire Department. In the last five years, at least 571 acres have burned on the parkway, although the actual figure is higher because there were hundreds of fires under an acre each that were listed as zero acres burned.
In wet seasons such as the current one, firefighters often have to rescue homeless people along the American River when water releases increase. Sixteen people were recovered Friday when their campsites were surrounded by water, despite warnings from officials to move to higher ground.
The parkway has an abundance of trees and other fuel for fire, and they became flammable during the recent drought years, said Patrick Taylor, an investigative supervisor for the Sacramento Fire Department. Some fires have spread more than 100 acres and forced evacuations of the parkway and events at Cal Expo. Habitat has been damaged or destroyed, forcing birds and other animals to relocate.
The Sacramento section of the parkway has long had the greatest share of homeless camps because of its proximity to social services and more land out of public view.
Homeless people have been convicted of arson on the parkway and have also caused blazes by letting flames escape from campfires, stoves and grills, officials say.
Since the summer of 2015, the Sacramento Fire Department has found that homeless people were involved in at least 46 of 86 fires, according to records obtained through a California Public Records Act request. In 28 of the 42 other fires, the cause was undetermined or still under investigation.
In the last five years, the Sacramento Fire Department has determined that 14 parkway fires were intentionally set.