The Parkway’s Skid Row

Skid Rows develop largely as the result of inaction–or wanting to contain a problem–by public leadership allowing a public area of a city, or in this case, of a park, to sink into degradation by not appropriating the proper resources, including leadership, to ensure it remains safe and welcoming for residents and other visitors.

That this has happened to the Parkway from Discovery Park to Cal Expo and the long period of time that public leadership has allowed illegal camping on the Parkway is why it has—sadly and tragically for the adjacent neighborhoods and the homeless—become the Parkway’s Skid Row.

According to this April 21, 2017 article from the New York Times, this allowance is a status that has existed for many years.

An excerpt.

SACRAMENTO — For Robert Friend, home was a tent pitched down by the American River off 12th Street. It was quiet, secluded in the bushes, a respite from life on the pavement downtown.

Or at least it was until the storms came.

“I got flooded out,” said Mr. Friend, 48, looking weary on a recent afternoon as he stood on the sidewalk he had escaped to a few blocks from the river. “This is the worst winter I’ve known in the 10 years I’ve been here. Last night and the night before I was just under a tarp, waiting it out. It was freezing-raining all night long.”

The rains that lashed California this year, continuing with yet another wave of downpours through last weekend, have pulled this state out of a historic drought. But they also exposed the extent and agony of homeless women and men who have long made homes along the banks of the now-swollen rivers across California, and particularly in Sacramento, a city of 480,000 where a largely hidden community has lived on the outskirts since the Great Depression. According to city and state officials, about 2,700 of the 118,000 homeless people in California live here.

The rains — the most during California’s rainy season since the state started keeping precipitation records nearly a century ago — overwhelmed the two rivers that converge on the northwest side of the city, the Sacramento and the American. They ripped away the cloak of shrubbery along the rivers’ banks, forcing people camped there to move to more exposed ground. Cold, soaked and stranded, they used makeshift rafts to float to safety, or waited for rescue by the Fire Department from their camps two miles from the State Capitol and within walking distance of the Governor’s Mansion.

“The rivers rise, and people are flushed out of where they are staying,” said Joan Burke, the advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves and Fishes, which provides food and other services for people living on the street. “All of a sudden they are visible to the rest of us.”

Homelessness draws more attention in big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where tents and sleeping bags crowd downtown sidewalks. But it has increasingly become a fact of life in suburbs and moderate-size cities like this one, places that often do not have the resources to manage it, and where the backlash to what was once seen as uniquely urban problems can be particularly intense.

Two people died within a week just outside City Hall this winter, as they sought refuge from the rain and the cold. It was the kind of tragedy that might barely be noticed in a big city numb to people living on its streets, but was deeply unsettling for this community.

“It was a terrible thing for the people who were displaced,” Ms. Burke said. “But the beneficial effect was the rest of us saw there are these huge number of homeless people in Sacramento who were suffering in this weather. And it just sort of crystallized for a lot of people that this is not O.K.”

“Knock, knock.”

Cale Traylor stood a few feet from a blue tent close to the American River, a dog barking in the background, late last month. The people who live here call themselves the River Dwellers, Mr. Traylor said, and he was once one himself.

Mr. Traylor, 37, slept not far from this spot during a five-year binge of alcoholism, drug abuse, petty crime and homelessness. He knows how to navigate this world that was once his own: Keep a respectful distance when approaching; carry a bone to distract an unleashed pit bull that might come bounding out of the brush.

There was a rustle inside the tent, and James Guidi, a Vietnam War veteran, emerged, a dazed look on his face.

Mr. Guidi, 65, said the riverbanks had been his home for eight years, and he is one of the few who has stayed here through the winter. The night before, he slept in a tent left behind by someone who had wandered on. But earlier in the week he had to sleep on the ground as the storms blew through, tearing away the tarp that provided him scant protection.

“I slept in a puddle,” Mr. Guidi said. “It was more terrible than any time I had in Vietnam. I can compare it to over there.”

Mr. Traylor’s struggle with homelessness began when his father committed suicide in 2010, when he was 30, and continued until he was sent to the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi in 2015 for stealing a car and trying to outrace the police. When he disappeared after his father’s death, his family wrote him off as a lost cause.

Mr. Traylor said he was sober now, studying electronic automation at Sacramento City College. He sees his mother and sisters regularly.

“There used to be a ton of cover,” he said, pointing to a spot along the river. “It was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. If the police can’t see you, then they typically leave you alone. When the water went up, it washed away all their coverage.”

Mr. Guidi said he didn’t care that his campsite was largely deserted as people fled the rains. “I’ve been living by the river here and there, off and on, for eight years,” he said. “People get along.”

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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