Homeless on the American River

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Most days, you'll find Bob Sparre on the American River, taking people to the best fishing spots in the region. He loves it so much, he made it his job more than 28 years ago. On the river, Sparre is at home.

"I spend a lot of time on the American. I grew up on the American. I could ride my bike down the river in five minutes," Sparre said.

This time of year, the catch of the day is salmon.

"Right now, we're fishing for King salmon. They range anywhere from five pounds to about 30, 35 pounds," Sparre said.

But on this trip, when we boarded Sparre's boat at dusk, we didn't go fishing.

"I've seen a lot of changes. And right now, it's kind of sad what you see on the river," he said.

Sparre took us to see what he calls a big problem along the American River Parkway.

"A lot of people, when we get on the boat and they go out and they see that, they're like "wow." They're set back because most people don't realize that we have such a huge problem. It's a major problem," Sparre said.

We've seen it from the American River bike trail, in the light of day. But at night, the magnitude of the issue comes into focus.

Sparre isn't the only one on the river who feels at home.

"They're all leaving downtown Sacramento and they're coming back to the river. And so you really see it on the river. It's noticeable," Sparre said.

We traveled from Discovery Park, about two miles, to the I-80 bridge.

Armed with flashlights, we immediately noticed the tents set up by the homeless -- just yards away from the beach at Discovery Park. As we traveled east, we saw camp after camp, dozens of tents, some right on the shore, others hidden behind thick vines, one was powered by a generator.

"Some of them will dig into the sides of the hills, into the levees. They can get pretty creative in where they will stay," Sparre said.

Surrounding the tents -- piles of trash. We saw garbage strewn across the sand and blanketing tree branches. Everything from broken bikes to shopping carts and broken bottles.

"These camps aren't getting cleaned up. And it gets worse and worse until we finally get a storm that cleans it out. And it leaves devastation through the whole river," Sparre said.

The tents came alive under the cover of darkness. We could see people cutting branches and breaking up furniture for firewood.

The campfires offer warmth and light, but they also pose a serious danger. The Sacramento Fire Department says crews have battled 377 fires along the American Ricer Parkway since January 2016.

According to Sacramento County's most recent homeless count, there are thousands of people sleeping outside. Hundreds of them are taking shelter on the American River.

In August, supervisors voted for an additional $5 million in funding for the parkway. Money that will go toward 32 new full-time jobs for patrolling the river and cleaning it up.

"I call it a whack-a-mole strategy. And I've called it a whack-a-mole strategy for a couple of years," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director for the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

He agrees with the county that the parkway isn't the best place for the homeless. But he believes that $5 million should be spent on short-term and long-term housing.

"People overwhelmingly are saying they want an affordable place to live. But there isn't one. There isn't a place for people to go," Erlenbusch said.

Sparre doesn't know what the solution is for the American River Parkway, but he knows something has to change to save the area before it's too late.

"It's a jewel. We have a lot of things this parkway offers for lots of different uses. But this right here will cut some of it back," Sparre said.