Cleaning up Parkway

Excellent article from the Sacramento Bee’s Marcos Breton; however, giving the county more money for parks hasn’t worked yet; but hope springs eternal so let’s try it again, give parks more money; and maybe add some political will (as the article notes, West Sacramento seems to have) in the process.

An excerpt.

The first time I was accused of “hating” the homeless was nearly a decade ago when I wrote my first column about how the American River Parkway was being decimated by homeless campers.

Not much has changed since then. Every summer, in what is now a wretched rite of passage, huge swaths of Sacramento’s urban forest go up in flames. These blazes often spark from illegal campfires started in illegal campsites.

In 2015, 15 fires broke out between Discovery Park and Campus Commons between late May and late August alone. One fire jumped the Garden Highway, threatening an apartment complex and causing terrified residents to douse their roofs with water hoses.

Fire isn’t the only safety issue on the parkway. It can be dangerous to ride your bike on trails such as the one from the I-80 crossing near Cal Expo to the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers at Discovery park. In recent weeks, two cyclists were attacked by pit bulls on the lower stretch of the parkway. The dogs belonged to homeless campers and were roaming free, not on leashes, in violation of parkway rules. One cyclist was bit in the face.

And then there’s the refuse. In his office desk, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna keeps a hypodermic needle in a plastic water bottle as a reminder of when the same needle stuck him in the hand nearly five years ago as he joined other volunteers to clear loads of trash left by homeless campers. The needle was one countless remnants of substance abuse you’ll find on the parkway. For months, Serna lived with the fear that he would contract HIV or hepatitis. After an intensive 21-day course of medication and six months of blood tests, Serna learned he was OK.

“It was surreal from the uncertainty,” he said recently. “When I show the needle to visitors to my office, it triggers looks of disgust.”

You get all kinds of reactions talking honestly and publicly about the health and safety hazards caused by homeless campers in the parkway, including ire from homeless advocates and others who, more often than not, live far from the dangers experienced by anyone residing adjacent to what should be a natural jewel of our city.

I don’t hate anybody or anything in my life, but when the county of Sacramento spends only 2 percent of its $615 million general-fund budget on parks, it sends a clear message. It says our community accepts that the parkway is a human dumping ground. It says that, as a community, we would rather not be reminded of what is really happening on the river because it makes us uncomfortable and defensive. If the homeless are out of sight, they are out of mind – fires, dog attacks and needles be damned.

After years of getting nowhere on this issue, Serna wants the county to finally commit real resources to protecting the parkway. He wants it to at least double its $13 million parks budget, which would allow for the hiring of more park rangers. The county currently employs only 24 rangers to cover the thousands of acres of parkway. Campers move constantly, often setting up sites in the brush off the trails, and rangers simply are spread too thin to properly enforce a simple ordinance: It’s illegal to camp on the parkway.

The county will debate its budget this month. “I believe we should start the conversation at no less than double the ($13 million) budget, given the vastness of our parkland inventory and the current limits on ability to maintain and patrol it,” Serna said.

Serna’s proposal promises to be a political fight because if you double the funding for parks, you take millions away from other programs. It’s also a politically radioactive issue because homeless advocates and residents alike will rightly ask the same question: If you move homeless people out of the parkway, where will they live?

This always has been the question with no answer. And because there has been no answer, the problem never gets fixed – and, in fact, gets worse.

So where would they live? The county also is considering spending $8.6 million over three years to fund a new full-service shelter for homeless people. The money would cover capital costs and operations for a shelter where pets would be accepted. A ban on pets often is an impediment to getting homeless people into housing.

“If we create a shelter that accepts pets, partners and possessions, it makes it easier for folks to come off the river and say, ‘Yes, I’ll accept the help you’re offering,’ ” Serna said.

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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