Richard Dean heaved his bike and trailer across the bridge, away from the city, and followed a dirt track through scrub until reaching a patch of shaded riverbank.
It was approaching 100F (37C) but Dean, sweating and panting, was upbeat. “This is a good workout. And we have the best air-conditioning in the world. It’s called the American river.”
The wiry 50-year-old unleashed his dog, Shunka, extracted a foldable chair from the cart and settled in for a serene afternoon under pecan and dogwood trees. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was home.
Dean, who goes by the nickname Syphy, is part of a largely invisible homeless population camped by the reeds and bushes lining the American river just outside Sacramento, California’s capital. They come for the seclusion and opportunity to live on their own terms.
They are not the first. Nisenan Indians settled here 5,000 years ago. Itinerant miners built shacks during the 1840s gold rush, followed by families displaced during the Great Depression. Now it is the turn of hundreds of modern outcasts with pets, bicycles, tents and tarpaulin.
“It’s so nice out here. I don’t consider myself homeless, I just live outside,” said Julie Pacheco, 48, seated in a bramble patch. “I don’t take any [government] assistance. I’d rather be a camping gypsy,” she said.
Pacheco had turned her little clearing, hidden from the river by blackberry bushes and almond trees, into a dwelling with two tents, a fire pit, a chair, a flowerpot and a stack of magazines and books, including Shirley MacLaine novels and a Ronald Reagan biography. She shared it with Annie, a terrier-chihuahua.
“I’ve got some Angus steaks marinating,” said Pacheco. “I’ll cook them tonight with mesquite to give them a barbecue taste.”
‘They seem to be hiding’
These clandestine denizens appear to occupy a relatively benign corner of the US homelessness crisis: a bucolic landscape with owls and beavers and a river where they can bathe, fish and live much like Huckleberry Finn. Some do – cooling in the water, hooking trout, exploring waterways with canoes.
Appearances deceive. Look closer and any sense of romantic idyll dissolves. The same forces driving homelessness from New York to Los Angeles – poverty, mental illness, addiction – waft through the reeds and oleander. The river is no refuge. It’s a trap.
Those who call it home can spend months, years, even decades in a netherworld closer to Trainspotting than Mark Twain.
Many abuse drugs, especially methamphetamine nicknamed crank, transforming them into toothless, hollow-cheeked vagabonds with nervous systems so fried they constantly fidget, earning the nickname tweakers. They survive not through wilderness resourcefulness but private charity, food stamps and welfare checks which land around the start of each month, expressed in the term “the eagle shits on the first”.
“It hits you in the face,” said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit which feeds hundreds daily in Sacramento. “We have people living in third-world conditions with no access to potable water or sanitation. It’s horrible to see them living in squalor when they truly can’t take care of themselves.”
Newcomers have swollen the population from dozens to hundreds in recent years, compelling some old-timers to move further upriver to escape fear of violence, said Jeff Harris, a city council member.
Anthony Bennett, a park ranger sergeant who heads a seven-strong team in the American River Parkway, a 23-mile environmental jewel, has spent a decade rousting and counseling the homeless. “It’s a bit sad and desperate. They seem to be hiding away from society. It’s not safe, it’s not legal and it’s not healthy. We do what we can to push people towards services and help. But we can’t force them to take it.”
Bennett said rangers strive to keep the parkway clean and safe without persecuting the homeless, who damage the park with litter, wood cutting and fires. “We’re not a swat team or the Gestapo. We treat these people as human beings.”
Who lives here
When the Guardian accompanied Bennett on a recent patrol he trekked down narrow dirt paths silent save for birds and the river’s swirl. Bent grass and snapped branches betrayed entrances to otherwise concealed camps, most containing just one or two tents.
Brandon Jack, 47, and Jennifer Goggin, 44, lived with their puppy, Miss Brodie, beneath a canopy of wild grapes. Jack, barefoot and shirtless, said he was an electrician fallen on hard times. Homeless shelters were not an option, he said. “You get 30 guys in a room blowing snot everywhere. It’s a disease factory.”
So for a year he had lived by the river, using it bathe, wash dishes and build a new life with his partner.
Bennett gave the couple 48 hours to move and urged them to contact Sacramento Steps Forward, a non-profit which works with the city to provide shelter and services to the homeless.
Jack nodded but did not seem convinced. “We’d rather be out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Further down the river another couple bore the ravages of decades in the wilderness. James Donaldson was weather-beaten with an unkempt beard of an Old Testament prophet. His wife Paula Richardson, 53, slumped in a chair, wheezed, coughed and cursed at dogs who howled from behind a tarpaulin sheet.
Through slurred speech Donaldson talked up the virtues of river life. “Beautiful vegetation. It gives a lot of oxygen.” He claimed to be an ex-LAPD officer who hadCalifornia governor Jerry Brown’s personal authorization to live here. Garbage and piles of filthy clothes bespoke a losing fight against grime and disease.
A handful appear to thrive. An old-timer nicknamed Runner Mike, so-called because he jogs through the wilderness, builds skillfully camouflaged shelters with air-vents, insulation, passageways and spider-holes. “He’s pretty proud of what he builds,” said Bennett. Another resident, nicknamed Monkey, seeks maximum seclusion by inhabiting islands.
Some band together and form tight-knit hamlets, sharing food, cigarettes and a sense of superiority over those who live on Sacramento’s streets, just a few miles across the bridge. “I don’t really like dealing with the riff-raff up there,” said Tina Schifflett, 43, a former Cinnabon manager who shares a patch of riverbank with several others.
Ryan Loofbourrow, the executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward, said river-dwellers tended to be more rugged and organized than urban homeless. “They want privacy and have the ability to carve out a bit of space for themselves.” But difficulties left many struggling, he added.
Most river-dwellers interviewed for this story spoke of loneliness, hardship and the specter of addiction. They stayed put, they said, for want of available low-income apartments and because moving to a shelter would mean giving up pets.
“It’s peaceful, sure,” said Craig Sanderson, 53, camped under an oak tree with Spike, a pitbull mastiff. He reads thrillers in his boxer shorts between scavenging bottles and cans with a bike and cart. “But the dirt gets to you.”
Pacheco, the woman living under brambles, was proud of her ability to forage and live alone. But isolation had unmoored her. Despite no academic background she spoke of drafting legislation and obtaining a Guggenheim fellowship. She wanted a laptop “for research” but abjured a phone. “I’ve no one to call.”
Syphy, who hailed the river’s air-conditioning prowess, said he felt close to nature and joked that the parkway’s maintenance crews were his maids. But even he felt it was a false sanctuary.
“If you think this is Huck Finn romance, good luck stepping out of a boat and not stepping on a fucking needle. Go to a tweaker camp and you’ll see the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. They steal and go into your stuff. I don’t trust people out here.”