Sacramento-area lawmakers introduce bill to address public safety on the American River Parkway

By Erin Heft, KCRA3

SACRAMENTO, Calif. —

Lawmakers in California want to make it easier to remove people experiencing homelessness along rivers and other open spaces after the body of a 20-year-old woman was found close to some tents at a popular park near the state’s capital city earlier this year.

Emma Roark vanished after taking a walk at about noon on Jan. 27 along the American River Parkway, a 23-mile paved pedestrian trail that runs along the river and connects various parks between Sacramento and Folsom. Eight million people use the parkway each year. But like most vast public spaces, it’s become a popular spot for those experiencing homelessness to camp.https://8270c279f5e60196697ba11a0ccc228f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlAdvertisement

Authorities later found Roark’s body in a secluded area not far from encampments. Investigators then arrested a 37-year-old homeless man and charged him with murder and rape in what the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department described as a “brutal sexual assault and homicide.”

Friday, just a few hundred yards from where Roark’s body was found, a trio of Democratic state lawmakers called for the Legislature to pass a bill they say would make it easier for local governments to clear out encampments along parklands and other open spaces.

Local governments already enforces their power to remove encampments, but state Assemblymember Kevin McCarty said many are afraid to do it after a federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that cities can’t enforce anti-camping laws if they don’t have enough available beds at homeless shelters to house everyone. That’s become a problem in California, where recent estimates suggest about 160,000 people are homeless, the most of any state.

“We need to draw a line in the sand. We certainly have a homeless crisis in our city, but there are certain places you can’t camp,” said McCarty, who is supporting the bill authored by Democratic Assemblymember Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova.

In a separate meeting, KCRA 3 met with the American River Parkway Foundation, the group who work to preserve the 23-mile-stretch of 4,800 acres that line the American River through four municipalities.

“I don’t think the parkway has ever been a place where there have not been illegal campers, some people choose to be out here, the number of campers over the last three years has drastically changed,” said Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation.

According to the foundation in 2019, 200 to 300 people were living in encampments on the parkway, in 2022 there is an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 camping.

“It used to be just in the lower reaches, now the campsites are up and down the entire parkway…for people to visually understand the impact, if it wasn’t for the parkway foundations volunteers, and even Sacramento County Regional Parks maintenance crews, we would be standing in a, in a, it would look like a landfill,” Poggetto said.

Poggetto and the American River Parkway Foundation have not taken a stance on any legislation being discussed at this time.

Last year, there were at least 60 fires along the American River Parkway, including one that destroyed a habitat restoration project, according to Stephen Green, president of Save the American River Association.

Volunteer groups who work to keep the parkway clean now must be over a certain age for certain areas of the parkway due to the dangerous material found on the ground, such as hypodermic needles, human waste and illegal substances.

Some people who have live in encampments along the parkway say they originally moved from city street to the parkway because it was a safe haven, but now they say it feels dangerous.

“It’s all changed, there ain’t no place that’s actually safe,” said Starlene Crowl. 

Crowl has lived in encampments on the American River Parkway for the last 16 years.

“It’s getting way too expensive in California,” said Joseph Engvall, whose lived along the parkway for six years.

The Sacramento Homeless Union stated in part, “California needs to sit down immediately and create a strategic housing and wrap around service comprehensive plan that does not include enforcement on individuals but opens the access to the much needed social safety net that has been broken.”

The bill, which is scheduled for a public hearing on April 26, would let local governments remove those experiencing homelessness from “special parklands” — a new category defined as any “parklands, open spaces, and natural preserves that have a heightened risk of damage from wildfire or other significant environmental degradation” because of its “unique and valuable environmental, agricultural, scientific, educational and recreational resources.”

That would include the American River Parkway and other protected river parks in the state, including river trails in San Diego and Los Angeles. In a separate request, lawmakers are also asking to set aside $50 million in the state budget for local governments to spend on “healthier housing options” for people who are camping in regional parks.

“The funding would be great, but it isn’t nearly enough to help everyone statewide,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. 

“Where do people go?” he said. “It’s just another way to continually criminalize people experiencing homelessness without any real alternatives.”

The bill is one of a wave of new proposals across the state aimed at forcing homeless people off the streets. In November, voters in Sacramento will vote on a ballot measure that would make homeless encampments on public property illegal and would force the city to have enough shelter beds for 60% of its homeless population.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has endorsed a plan that could force some into treatment for drug addiction and mental health conditions.

Many advocates for the homeless oppose these ideas because they would violate civil rights. But the political momentum for them has been growing as the state’s homeless population becomes more visible along with an increase in reported crimes following a decrease during the pandemic.

“Someone has to be the adult in the room and make adult decisions that hasn’t been made until now,” said Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove who is also running for Sacramento County sheriff. “It takes courage.”