Saturday, February 05, 2011

Some History of Parkway Illegal Camping II

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is another story from the Sacramento Bee, this one from 2002.

“The Sacramento Bee 2002-03-18
Mary Lynne Vellinga, Bee Staff Writer

Problems on the Parkway, Capital targets homeless camps

“As it passes through North Sacramento, the American River Parkway becomes a riparian jungle where dirt paths hug the river and wind through a thick cover of oak trees, wild grape vines and elderberry thickets.

“It's a potential paradise for hikers, horseback riders and picnicking families. But the absence of such people is striking.

“A closer look inside the thickets finds many of them full of trash, old clothes, bicycle parts, sleeping bags and human excrement. Over the past two decades, this portion of the taxpayer-owned parkway has been claimed by another population: the homeless.

"Rarely do I see a (non-homeless) citizen out here, which is kind of a sad state of affairs," park ranger Tim McElheney said last week as he supervised a sheriff's work detail cleaning up garbage in the lower parkway.

“McElheney keeps a map dotted with all the camps he has identified along the river in the past few years. In some areas, the river is lined with a nearly solid mass of dots. Last summer, he said, there were 80 campsites in just one four-acre area.

“Sacramento County, which owns the parkway, has struggled for years with the politically explosive issue of homeless campers. Officials don't want to appear insensitive. At the same time, they are barraged with complaints about illegal dumping and camping along the parkway, often touted as Sacramento's most valuable recreational resource.

"The pendulum sort of swings back and forth in terms of what kinds of actions we're supposed to be taking against this homeless population," said Dave Lydick, a county parks department manager.

“At the moment, the pendulum has swung toward enforcement of the ban on parkway camping. In the past few weeks, the county permanently assigned two veteran rangers, McElheney and Will Safford, to patrol the stretch of the parkway east of Discovery Park and west of Cal Expo, which has the greatest concentration of homeless camps.

“County Supervisor Roger Dickinson has directed county parks staff to come up with ideas for attracting more recreational users to this end of the parkway - some drinking fountains, for instance, or picnic tables.

"We clearly have a circumstance in the lower parkway where people don't necessarily feel safe or welcome," Dickinson said.

“Homeless campers and some of their advocates say the county should just leave them alone, especially given Sacramento's acute shortage of homeless shelter beds.

“Sacramento County spends $22 million a year on services for the homeless. But the Sacramento County and Cities Board on Homelessness has concluded the region needs to build shelter for 1,600 more people over the next five years.

“The lower parkway "is being used - for people's lives," said Garry Cox, a Presbyterian minister who serves as liaison to the river campers for Loaves & Fishes, the 12th Street charity that provides services for Sacramento's homeless population.

“Cox once brought a Christmas tree out to a camp. He said he has stayed overnight on the river a half dozen times in an effort to get to know the campers better.

“Bill McManus, who has camped along the river for 17 years, said he considers the parkway his home.

"This ranger told me the other day, 'You're on my river,' " McManus said. "I said, 'I've been here for 17 years. How can it be yours?' "

“McManus, who travels with three German shepherd mix dogs and one husky mix, maintains the parkway is safe despite the large homeless population.

"We're no different than any other community," McManus said. "If you look in the paper, you'll see a lot more rapes and murders (in the outside community) than you do down here."

“Lea Brooks, chairwoman of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, has a different perspective. She commutes through the parkway every day from downtown to her home in Gold River.

"I avoid stopping at least until I get to the H Street bridge, because I always assume that there's somebody hiding in the bushes or living in the bushes," she said.

“Once, a man tried to throw a large stick into the spokes of her bike as she passed. In another incident, Brooks' husband was sprayed with mace or a similar substance by someone standing along the path.

"I've had groups of people blocking the bike bridge in the past," Brooks said. "I've had groups of men having parties in the middle of the bridge. I've had people literally passed out."

“Advocates for the homeless acknowledge the parkway population includes people who are there for reasons other than lack of shelter beds: Some are mentally ill, others want to stay with a boyfriend or girlfriend or are using drugs or alcohol. And some just don't like being around a big group of people.

“Jim Gravely, 41, said he's been camping along the parkway for six years. He said he doesn't go to homeless shelters. "I don't like to be governed, and you've got to deal with all those other groups," said Gravely, who was playing horseshoes at Loaves & Fishes one afternoon last week.

“Several other campers declined to talk. Cox, the Loaves & Fishes liaison, said they are upset and frightened by the February murder of Ken Massie, a popular homeless man who camped under Highway 160. Massie and a companion were shot by a masked gunman as they bedded down. Cox said campers viewed the incident as sign of rising hostility toward the homeless.

“But those who advocate clearing the camps from the parkway say the shooting illustrates how dangerous the area is for the campers themselves.

"We have this thing the county refers to as a national jewel; it's a cesspool, it's unsafe," complained Bob Slobe, a North Sacramento businessman whose family sold the North Sacramento parkway land to the county in the mid-1980s for about $2 million.

“Slobe has made it a crusade to get the county to crack down. He views the current effort as inadequate.

“Almost every day, Slobe heads out from his office on Slobe Avenue in North Sacramento, near Costco and the Radisson Hotel, and hikes or runs along the parkway. He carries a digital camera to document the camps and barrages officials with images from his Web site.

“On a recent hike, he found a few active camps and numerous old campsites littered with piles of bicycle parts, sleeping bags, clothes and garbage. In one spot, a red loose-leaf binder lay in the middle of the path. Inside were neatly clipped male pornography pictures, enclosed in plastic sleeves.

“Slobe argues that it's unfair for the county to tolerate massive, illegal camping in the portion of the parkway that abuts one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"There should be programmed activities down there every single day of the year," he said "There should be day camps for kids. There should be interpretative services and signage."

“Without a hint of facetiousness, he offers to donate tents and chemical toilets for homeless camps to be set up in East Portal Park, Curtis Park, Land Park - all in more affluent neighborhoods. Nobody has taken him up on the offer.

“Sacramento is certainly not the only city that has a homeless camping problem. San Francisco has struggled with illegal camping in Golden Gate Park. Some Santa Cruz councilmen recently caused a stir when they proposed allowing homeless people to get permits to camp in city parks as long as they helped clean them.

“But Sacramento is unusual in that it has a long strip of relatively wild parkland running the length of the metropolitan area.

"We do have a beautiful parkway that has lots of forested areas where people can be protected from the weather," said Jan Gallaway, homeless program manager at the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance. "It really draws people here."

“The 460-acre portion of the parkway next to North Sacramento - an area larger than Discovery Park, Ancil Hoffman Park or Goethe Park - is designated in the 1985 parkway plan as a nature area. Only limited recreation, such as hiking or horseback riding, is allowed.

“But there is no nature center here. There are no signs directing hikers where to go. Slobe said an overturned chemical toilet once was allowed to lie in the middle of the bike path for four months.

"Most of the investment the county has made in the parkway has been outside the city of Sacramento," said Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo.

“Fargo said the city might be willing "to get in there and offer some facilities," if it could work out a lease agreement with the county. A skateboard park maybe, or disc golf, or even a scenic drive along the river.

“The county is working on an update of the parkway plan, but is unlikely to allow large-scale active recreation in North Sacramento's portion of the parkway.

"I would hate to put green grass sprinklers in there," said Ron Suter, director of the county parks department. "That area is designed for the deer and the critters."

“Lydick said the department is trying to come up with ideas but that critics have to be patient. His department, hamstrung by a lack of funding, is struggling just to pick up the garbage.

"We're not exaggerating when we say we've taken 28 tons of trash out of there since July," Lydick said. "We're trying to make improvements down there. We've added staff. This isn't a problem that's going to be fixed in one day, one week or one month."