Sitting on the edge of a collection of about 60 tents pitched along the American River, Twana James is trying to comfort a friend at the end of her days.
The woman was waiting for a caseworker from a non-profit to pick her up and put her on a housing list.
A shelter that provides food, showers, and counseling is where James gives her a ride. She made a comment about her friend’s hair that elicited a laugh.
It is the sort of thing James does quite a bit. She has been a resident of this camp in California’s capital for many years, and she is also the caretaker for many of the elderly people who call it their home.
The tents are located on a beautiful plot of land along the American River. A short walk from a busy road, the camp feels like a world away from the nearby office buildings and a Mexican restaurant.
The community has been isolated for decades and has formed a tight group. In the last few years it has expanded, as homelessness in the city and county has increased to record levels.
The unhoused population has gone up all over California, but the increase in Sacramento has been particularly striking.
Since the beginning of the year, the region has seen a 70% increase in homeless people. Almost 10,000 people are estimated to be without a home, with the majority of them sleeping outdoors or in vehicles. Near schools and next to busy roads there are campsites.
According to the point-in-time count, the high cost of housing is the main force behind the rise. The median home price in the county is more than $500,000 and the median monthly rent is more than $2,700. While thousands of people sleep outside, some studios downtown rent for $2,000 a month, according to the president of the Sacramento Homeless Union.
The capital of the fifth largest economy in the world lacks over 100,000 affordable housing. I have lived here all my life.
The city acknowledges the unfolding emergency but has struggled to come up with meaningful solutions that match the scale of the problem, as housing prices continue to climb. Local authorities have cracked down on unhoused communities with county bans on camping near critical infrastructure and along the American River Parkway.
As tensions grow over how to respond to the growing number of unhoused people in the city, homelessness is on the ballot. Measure O, an initiative backed by local business leaders unhappy with Sacramento’s approach, seeks to address the crisis by pushing encampments out of public spaces and allowing residents to take legal action against the city. Proponents say it is a needed shift from the status quo to address homelessness, while opponents say it would not solve the problem.