Backhoeing Illegal Homeless Camps

Two things leap out from this very informative article in Sacramento News & Review: the tragic and desperate conditions under which the homeless live, and the importance of clearing out camps that are dangerous, polluted, and often fire- traps.

An excerpt.

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.

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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