Sacramento County advances two homeless measures; one would clear American River camps

·5 min read
Renee C. Byer/

Sacramento County supervisors on Wednesday moved to ban camping along the American River Parkway, a regional “crown jewel” that neighbors say grew unsafe since its homeless population swelled.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a pair of anti-camping ordinances Wednesday night, moving them toward a vote on final adoption that will take place Aug. 23.

One ordinance would prohibit camping on the entire American River Parkway and Dry Creek Parkway; the other would prohibit camping on flood levees, fire risk zones and near homeless shelters, schools and libraries. Around 2,000 homeless people camp in the parkway alone, the American River Parkway Foundation estimates.

Supervisors said they do not intend to carry out broad homeless sweeps on the parkway, but the parkway ordinance is not tied to a commitment to finding shelter for people on the parkway.

“We have to be good stewards of our infrastructure, and very good stewards of the unique asset that is the American River Parkway,” said Supervisor Phil Serna, who supported the ordinance. “And we have an obligation to make sure that nobody suffers in this county unnecessarily.”

Elected officials at every level of Sacramento County government this year have called for a new strategy to clear the parkway of homeless camps. Public concern reached a fever pitch after the February slaying of 20-year-old Emma Roark on the parkway.

The American River Parkway Foundation has called for the area to be cleared, as has the Sacramento chapter of the Sierra Club, citing increased fires on the parkway.

“The parkways are not designed to accommodate extended camping” said Liz Bellas, the county’s director of regional parks. “The infrastructure necessary to support such activities is not present, and the lack of these amenities lead to unsanitary and unsafe living conditions.”

Over the course of a seven-hour meeting, some members of the public spoke out in favor of clearing the parkway, while others criticized the supervisors for hurting those in encampments. Speeches were often met with applause or jeers from the crowd.

“It is cruel to advocate for people to get off the streets and parkway and loudly oppose the establishment of shelters elsewhere,” said Shireen Miles, an advocate from Sacramento Area Congregations Together.

More than 9,000 people are homeless in Sacramento County and any given night, according to the most recent federally mandated point-in-time count. The county and the city of Sacramento provide currently provide shelter for about 2,500 people.

Sacramento city leaders are among those criticizing the county for proposing the ordinances without accompanying shelter measures. The city is including an anti-camping measure on the November ballot that requires the city to open more shelter space.

The Sacramento City Council voted Tuesday evening to amend the ballot measure to make it contingent on Sacramento County agreeing to increase homeless services. If voters approve the ballot measure, it will go into effect if the county signs a legally-binding agreement that “memorializes the respective roles of the city and county to improve the homelessness crisis,” a city staff report said.

Homelessness on American River

Homelessness on the American River Parkway is especially contentious.

Homeless people on the parkway have described it as a shelter of last resort that they turn to when they’re pushed away from other places. Parkway users, meanwhile, say the encampments threaten the natural landscape.

“We are cleaning up 30,000 pounds of trash in days,” said David Ingram, a leader of Sacramento Picks It Up, which supports the two ordinances. Ingram and others showed pictures of trash along the parkway during his comments.

Homeless people who attended the meeting contested his description of the parkway encampments.

“I make sure I clean my area, I love animals and I just wanted you guys to see that there is more than the trash,” said Sandra Reynolds, an unhoused woman who lives on the American River Parkway.

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors allocated $5 million for an American River Parkway shelter, but have not yet announced a site or timeline. County supervisors also recently voted to open two tiny home shelters, which will house up to 145 people in south Sacramento.

Can Sacramento County enforce measure?

The ordinances would outlaw homeless camps, allowing law enforcement to hand out misdemeanors should they not voluntarily leave.

Sacramento County and other local governments are restricted in how they clear homeless camps by a 2018 federal court ruling known as Martin v. Boise, which prohibits governments from clearing encampments unless they provide enough shelter beds.

In documents submitted ahead of the meeting, county Director of Homeless Initiatives Emily Halcon and Deputy County Counsel Leticia Ramirez wrote that “the intent of the ordinance is to provide an additional tool to law enforcement to utilize in situations in which individuals refuse to voluntarily comply with requests to leave an area when alternative appropriate shelter options are made available to them.”

“The county is not going to all of a sudden sweep every single homeless person off the Parkway,” Desmond said at the meeting. “That is immoral, and illegal.”

The language of the ordinances, however, does not specify that alternative shelter must be available in order for encampments to be cleared — leaving it potentially to legal challenges under Boise.

County lawyers believe that keeping the public space ordinance limited to specific infrastructure will keep it in compliance with the Boise decision. Documents prepared for the American River Parkway ordinance did not mention the Boise decision.

“It is more legally defensible to prohibit this activity in select areas than a blanket prohibition on all public property given the court’s language in Boise indicating that it may be constitutionally permissible to criminally enforce an ordinance prohibiting individuals from being on public property in specific areas,” Halcon and Ramirez wrote ahead of the meeting.

The Bee’s Theresa Clift contributed to this story.