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Camped Out

County readies for removal of homeless from parkway

By Howard Schmidt
October 2022

What happens when camping is banned on the American River Parkway? Sacramento County will soon find out.

Homeless advocates predict people will die. Parkway environmentalists say the natural waterways will continue to be harmed if campers remain. Average citizens express fear for their safety unless campers are removed.

Now that the Board of Supervisors has unanimously approved the parkway camping ban, don’t expect anything drastic to occur right away.

The supervisors signaled there will be no immediate sweeps. At most, the county may push campers to higher ground, away from places vulnerable to brush fires and floods.

Homeless advocates claim the board’s action is illegal under the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case Martin v. Boise. In Martin, the court ruled local governments can’t make being homeless illegal.

Many advocates and some local officials use the Martin decision to claim authorities can’t remove homeless camps unless an equal number of shelters are provided. However, the decision approves of camp removals from locations considered dangerous or sensitive.

“These ordinances will literally kill people” predicted a homeless advocate who identified himself as Alejandro. He wore a T-shirt saying, “Decarcerate Sacramento.”

People favoring the ban point to the environmental impacts caused by camping and the need to make the parkway safe. But many self-described “unhoused” individuals told the board that sweeps by park rangers disrupt their lives and they have nowhere else to go.

Stephen Green of the Save the American River Association says the mess on the parkway “didn’t have to happen because we have the laws,” but noted with frustration those laws “need to be enforced.”

Dianna Poggetto of the American River Parkway Foundation complained to the supervisors about frequent fires near parkway homeless camps. A two-alarm fire was underway near the river as the board approved the camping ban. Park rangers reported more than 70 parkway fires from January to May this year.

Many of the ban’s proponents insisted they aren’t “anti-homeless.” Poggetto said the foundation’s stewards provide bags to campers so they can collect their trash. She said her group is working with developers to “have safegrounds on the parkway” to relocate campers.

Green spoke about how the river association suggested a homeless camp at Cal Expo. The plan was rejected by State Fair leadership.

Also speaking for the ordinance was Elk Grove City Council member Pat Hume, who is running to succeed retiring Supervisor Don Nottoli. Hume said “homelessness is not a victimless situation” and noted campers are preyed upon by sex traffickers, drug dealers and other criminals.

County staff reported six homicides in the parkway near encampments in 2021. This year, one female parkway visitor was raped, tortured and murdered. The alleged assailant is homeless.

A “safe and clean parkway is a priority” Supervisor Phil Serna said, adding he didn’t expect the ordinance to be “exploitive” against campers. Supervisor Patrick Kennedy said the ordinance was “not being designed to punish.”
Supervisor Rich Desmond said the county needs “to regulate these encampments both morally and legally” until more housing can be obtained. County Executive Ann Edwards assured the board she is committed to engage with campers “before enforcement.”

Opponents insisted the ordinance “criminalizes” homelessness. Their interruptions prompted a frustrated Nottoli to call for a quick vote without further deliberations.

Howard Schmidt worked on federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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