Third World villages

Hundreds of homeless people in Sacramento are living in encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

Essay: Why are people in Sacramento homeless encampments having to drink water from hand-washing stations?

By Joe Smith

The American River Parkway is home to some of the largest encampments of people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County. They are in the area just north of downtown from Discovery Park along the river to Midtown.

Each encampment has a character of its own and a different population. In some camps, tents line up one after another; other camps are spread out. For those who do not have a tent, tarps hang from trees for shade and shelter. Companion pets stand guard and roam freely.

It may sound like I am describing a vacation site at a state park, but I assure you, I am not.

Everything folks own surround each tent area. Garbage is piled up in central locations because there are no trash cans or dumpsters. Deeper in the encampments, 5-gallon buckets are makeshift restrooms. As part of the county’s COVID-19 response effort, portable toilets and hand-washing stations have been placed sparingly near the camps, but there are no garbage cans. And there’s no access to running water for drinking, even though the first 90-plus degree days of the season already occurred on May 7 and 8.

These camps have become Third World villages. How do you stay hydrated? How do you eat? How do you receive medical care? How do you “stay at home” during a pandemic when you live in a camp along the bike trail? How do you stay up to date?

These are life-and-death questions.

It has come to my attention that folks have been forced out of desperation to drink water from hand-washing stations. This is unconscionable, unsanitary, unhealthy and just plain wrong. How could this happen?

I’ll tell you: The people in these encampments are being passed over, plain and simple.

Joe Smith is advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

“Folks have been forced out of desperation to drink water from hand-washing stations. This is unconscionable, unsanitary, unhealthy and just plain wrong.”

The county’s COVID-19 Homeless Response Team surveyed the county’s encampments, but since has had very little to do with the camps along this part of the parkway. As a result, these unhoused men, women and children and their pets have no supplies such as food and drinking water. They have become desperate enough to drink water from hand-washing stations.

Indeed, it is sometimes a more difficult population to deal with; however, they are a population whose needs are significant. They are mostly people who are chronically homeless and who often have mental illness and addiction that have gone untreated for many years. They hope for a way out of their situation, but have no trust and or faith that they will ever see any real help.

As much as ever, they and everyone experiencing homelessness need our support, love and compassion. They deserve permanent, supportive, dignified and affordable housing with services to support their rehabilitation. They deserve real mental health services that provide for long-term care and support. They deserve a real chance.

But for right now, they need safe water to drink and food to eat.

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