by George Warren


SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – The American River Parkway is often called the “Jewel of Sacramento,” but a stretch of the river near downtown shows how the city’s growing homeless population threatens this precious natural resource.

The 1.7-mile paved levee path on the south side of the river between Interstate 5 and the Highway 160 bridge is formally known as the Two Rivers Trail, but you won’t see many recreational cyclists willing to share the space with shopping carts, abandoned bicycles and piles of trash.

Scores of tents and tarps line the base of the levee on both sides of the trail and the sound of a generator can occasionally be heard. The faint smell of human waste can be detected on a hot July afternoon.

CBS13 invited longtime Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton on a bike ride to share his thoughts on how his community is losing a recreational treasure.

“This part of (the parkway) has become known as being very dangerous,” he said while pedaling past a row of tents near the riverbank. “You don’t bring your kids, you don’t bring your dogs, you just avoid it. Which is very sad.”

The nearest public toilets are located at the western end of the Two Rivers Trail in Tiscornia Park, which is up to a mile or more from the main cluster of campsites. It’s not hard to imagine how the parkway homeless are dealing with their biological needs. The Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks has posted signs along the lower American River warning swimmers of high E. coli readings.

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Among the many encampments littered with debris sits a tidy collection of tents surrounding a table and chairs with a string of party lights overhead. The campsite belongs to Sacramento native Andrew Benenato, 54, who lives here with his girlfriend.

Benenato says he tries to encourage others to gather up trash and debris for regular collections that take place at the top of the levee, but admits he’s having limited success.

“It’s one thing being homeless, then it’s one thing being homeless and being a dirtbag. And there’s a lot of that,” he said.

Benenato says his car was towed when he came for a short visit with friends along the river– and that was a year ago. He says he would gladly move if he could find somewhere else to live.

But the solution is not so straightforward for other homeless campers. Some clearly exhibit signs of addiction and mental illness, while others have apparently made a lifestyle choice to live out in the open on public land.

Benenato has no tolerance for them.

IN PHOTOS: Along The American River Parkway (swipe for more)

“All these nasty people. It’s bad.”

Of course, it’s illegal to camp along the American River Parkway, but any efforts by local government to remove the campsites have been thwarted by a federal court ruling that says homeless can’t be rousted from public property if there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been the target of criticism for what many perceive as the city’s lack of action in dealing with the growing homeless population. But Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed Steinberg co-chair of a statewide commission that will explore giving every Californian a “right to shelter.” The undertaking would be hugely expensive, requiring housing for an estimated 90,000 people in California who currently live unsheltered. But the move would allow local authorities to take back control of the Two Rivers Trail and other public facilities.

Breton, who’s written about homeless issues for years, believes the time has come for Sacramento and other impacted communities to stop pushing the homeless out of sight.

“We’re beyond ‘this is a nuisance’ issue,” he said. “This is a major societal crisis.”

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