Driving along Stockton Boulevard last Wednesday, I spotted a homeless encampment cleaning crew. There were two buses and three Sacramento County Sheriff patrol cars.
About two dozen community service workers were piling up mounds of junk from the empty lot. They do it every Wednesday. Every week, they say, they find the same amount of junk from encampment to encampment.
“I’m tired of being homeless,” said Deborah Gordon, standing aside by a small pile of her remaining belongings.
I asked her and another of the eight people living in the lot about the story behind their homelessness. Gordon said she had a voucher, but when a place finally became available, the housing coordinator told her it was too late.
“I’ve been homeless for two years." Gordon explained.. "[The coordinator] said, 'Your stuff has expired.' My tongue just dropped to the floor. My stomach, my heart, everything. I was just floored."
Gordon added that the owners of the lot allow her to stay there. "I’ve had the police come, run my name and two of my friend's name and say, ‘Oh, you 're totally fine here, just don’t leave a mess.’ Then the Sheriff comes and says this is county property."
Another woman, who didn’t disclose her name, said she is on a waiting list, but without a place to go, navigation is just lip service.
“They’re supposed to push us around and move us around until we get so fed up with it we just leave the city," the woman explained. "Another on told us their job is to help us lighten our load by throwing our stuff away, and then give us resources."
She said those resources come in the form of business cards with phone numbers that no longer work.
“It’s like, OK, great. Most of us just go back to the same spot."
Out along the American River Parkway, Valerie Price says she feels more discreet and safer than out on the streets.
“We're kind of like out of sight out of mind, you know what I mean? Because the public doesn't like to see that either.” Price explained.
Price added that her two dogs, Ojos and Lilly, protect her from potential danger on the river. She got them after a man brutally attacked her, back when she was living unsheltered in Downtown Sacramento
“That's when I lost it.” Price said she has suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, and depression.
“He had me in his house for seven hours," she explained. "He raped me in every conceivable way you can imagine."
In the past, Price said, she had been hesitant to share her story.
“I just want the community to know that we’re not just losers out here everybody’s got a story." she said “It’s kind of like a little family out here. We all look out for each other."
While they keep her safe, her dogs make it harder to find housing or even a shelter.
"They were kind of that barrier," she said. "But I'm not willing to give them up. I mean they would flip out if I left. They’re as attached to me as I am to them.”
By next year, Valerie and the dozens of people living on the island will find it harder to camp out along the river. The county has authorized the allocation of $5 million to enhance enforcement efforts from four to seven days a week with a team of over 30 park rangers.
“In the summer months when everything is bone dry, there is a lengthy history proportionally of hundreds of acres going up in flames and time," Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said.
Serna explained that many of his constituents refuse to use the park because “they don't feel safe, they don't feel it's clean. And I can't disagree with them.”
Critics of enforcement policies have described this as a whack-a-mole strategy, which just shifts people from place to place, criminalizes the homeless and doesn’t provide any real solutions. Serna said he gets that. That’s why the county plans to unveil a low-barrier shelter, where people like Valerie can bring in their pets and possessions and go in with their partners when they are told to move along.
“By having a full-service shelter in place that is actually under the direct control, we now can expand what we do for folks when we tell them, ask them to move on from the parkway," Serna said.
But those 75 or so beds, serving an estimated 300 people a year, are not enough to house more than 3,500 homeless people in Sacramento. With the impossibly low supply of affordable housing, homelessness has only gotten worse. However, the city and the county are starting to work together in some efforts, like reprioritizing housing vouchers, for people who are homeless.
“There is this weird dynamic, where the city is on one track and the county is on another track," explained Bob Erlenbusch, the executive director of Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. "The city needs the county or wants the county to partner, and the county doesn't show many signs of partnering if any.”
When I asked Mayor Steinberg about the kind of collaboration that exists between the city and the county, he said, “it could be enhanced by taking the resources that they are budgeting, which are considerable — the mental health and substance abuse resources, which they control, the Whole Person Care Grant, the $64 million that the city has received… we put those resources together.”
Those $64 million for the Whole Person Grant the city got was meant for counties. When the county passed on the opportunity, the city applied and got the grant.
Serna said the county evaluated the grant and considered it was too focused on navigation, as opposed to the destination.
“We looked at it very hard and made an informed decision about why we wouldn’t want to go find matching millions of dollars, taxpayer dollars, if we don't have those destinations," Serna said.
Now they’re exchanging requests and demands and looking into each other’s pockets to see if and how they can come together. But most of these conversations, as good-willed as they may be, are mainly about resources that don’t directly build permanent housing for the people they are treating.
That hope lies in the hands of the state, which has over a hundred housing bills being fought for and against.
So the question remains: Where will homeless people go?
“I have a strong spirit, but it’s cracking a little bit” said Price, who has been homeless for more than a decade and hopes to get housing within the next few months. “It's harder… Fifteen years ago it was just camping. I'm not camping anymore. This is not Yosemite.”
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