The boat ride down the American River began near Howe Avenue and seemed idyllic for long stretches until we got closer to the city of Sacramento. Then it seemed like we had entered a third-world favela right in the capital of California.
We saw makeshift shelters lined up on the banks amid piles of trash. We saw abandoned shopping carts stranded in the water. We even saw a bicycle chop shop, with scores of bikes and metal parts stacked up on one another.
The environmental degradation of the lower stretch of the American River is not a new issue, but there is no way to truly understand its impact and implications until you view it from an unobstructed vantage point.
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From a boat, you can see a virtual homeless city that’s obscured by trees and bushes when approached by land. From a boat, you can get a full measure of the collection of illegal encampments, to the enduring shame of the city and county of Sacramento.
On Wednesday, Sacramento County Supervisors will decide whether to commit between $3-$5 million in budget allocations to pay for more park rangers, maintenance workers and animal control employees – all in an effort to cope with the negative impacts caused by a growing homeless population living in Sacramento’s urban river parkway.
Truthfully, even $5 million is insufficient. Protecting the American River Parkway deserves much more. But a “yes” vote for an issue pushed by County Supervisor Phil Serna would be a major allocation considering the county currently spends $6.5 million on all of its county parks.
“It will represent a historic, bold step to finally prioritize the parkway the same way it is appreciated,” Serna said. “The parkway is a unique natural and recreational asset that defines our community as very special.”
With homeless populations spiking in Sacramento, the environmental impacts on the soil, water and vegetation of the parkway may be reaching a tipping point. If county supervisors take a pass now, if they kick the can down the road, their inaction might one day be remembered as the moment a gorgeous natural resource was forsaken and ultimately allowed to become damaged beyond repair.
The captain of our excursion last week was Maury Hatch, a seasoned fishing guide. In addition to shopping carts, he’s seen propane tanks in the water. He’s seen human feces in the water, the same water in which illegal campers also urinate, and do their dishes.
“This is a unique view that lots of people don’t get to see,” Hatch said. “The amount of garbage, propane bottles, soap and fecal matter in the river has no doubt caused the water quality to go down.
“For now, the fish are still here, the mammals are still here – but there are a lot more humans here than were here before.”
Others have been sounding the alarm as well. “My biggest concern is that the parkway won’t be a place for recreation anymore,” said Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation.
Some people already are afraid to ride their bikes or jog on the river trails near Discovery Park. Violent crime on the parkway is on the rise. Cyclists have been pelted with rocks. There have been dog attacks, as well as fires that have threatened nearby structures.
Why has the parkway gotten worse, particularly over the past five years, while little or nothing has been done about it? The politics of homelessness have been a major factor.
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The argument goes like this: If you move homeless people off the parkway, they will flood into neighborhoods. Supervisors Sue Peters and Sue Frost have given voice to that argument, and homeless advocates have framed efforts to save the greenbelt as an assault on homeless rights.
The Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, for example, is vehemently opposed to spending the millions needed to protect the parkway.
“SRCEH strongly urges the Board of Supervisors to use the $3 to $5 million to expand emergency shelter bed options and create a Homeless Employment Project,” Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of SRCEH, wrote in an Aug. 7 letter to county supervisors.
This point of view sets up a false choice. Yes, Sacramento city and county should do more to house and help people. But why can’t they do that and protect the parkway as well?
To suggest that the county should not be spending additional dollars to preserve a natural resource is wrong headed. It says that Sacramento should allow its river and urban forest to become a human dumping ground. It says we are OK with homeless people living in squalor so long as they are out of sight.
And they mostly remain out of sight if you only experience the parkway on its trails. But if you come at it from the water, the full impact of this civic tragedy is impossible to ignore.
As we passed by in our boat, many illegal campers gave us friendly waves. Hatch said he has no animus toward anyone living on the river. He’s just a Sacramento native who loves the area and feels badly about the slow erosion of a waterway that gets worse every year.
It’s an irony, and a testament to the power of homeless politics, that a town full of environmentalists has gotten lockjaw when it comes to the destruction of its parkway.
This is not a question about empathy for human suffering. It’s about actually addressing the damage being done to the parkway by people who aren’t supposed to live there.
County supervisors need to act now. The city of Sacramento needs to take political ownership as well because by far some of the worst areas of the parkway are near Richards Boulevard and within city limits.
Hatch said it’s difficult for him to understand why authorities have allowed conditions to get so out of hand. “You can get a ticket for driving your boat too fast on the river. You can get a ticket for walking your dog without a leash,” he said with a laugh. “But they let people live here. How does that make sense?”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 20 to correct the date of the County Board of Supervisors meeting.