Shelterless In Sacramento: How The End Of California's Drought Harmed The Homeless

Folded into a bend in Sacramento’s American River, it was quiet. Cloistered. A reprieve from life in the concrete jungle of downtown.

Compared to the asphalt at the Sacramento Downtown Plaza on L Street, Robert felt as though he had landed on the Riviera. Folded into a bend in Sacramento’s American River, it was quiet. Cloistered. A reprieve from life in the concrete jungle of downtown.

And then the storms came.

Now, standing on the sidewalk from which he had escaped a few months before, Robert compared notes with other homeless and advocates from the Sacramento’s Loaves, and Fishes shelter for homeless.

“I got flooded out,” said Robert, looking weary.

“This is the wickedest winter I’ve been through in the ten years I’ve been here. The last two nights I just had a tarp. I huddled in the darkness. It was sleeting all night long.”

The rains which pounded California remained and plucked the state out of a historic drought which began in 2011. The rains did more. They uncovered the severity and suffering of homeless men and women who inhabited the banks of the now-overflowing river.

In Sacramento, a city of almost a half-million, a mostly hidden community has lived on the outskirts. The campsite goes back to the Great Depression, and close to 3,000 homeless live here.

The most rain California has recorded since the state started keeping records, almost one hundred years ago, swelled the two rivers that meet on the northwest side of town. The Sacramento and the American tore away the undergrowth along the banks. People camping there were forced to move to higher ground.

Cold, soaked and stranded they made homemade rafts to drift to safety. Driven from their homes, the State Capitol was just blocks away.

“The rivers rise and people are forced out,” Joan Burke, Loaves and Fishes’ director was telling a reporter from The Sacramento Bee. “Suddenly they are visible to the town.”

Homelessness garners greater attention in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Citizens there are accustomed to seeing sleeping bags and tents crowd the sidewalks. Homelessness is becoming a hard fact of life in moderate-size cities like Sacramento. The city doesn’t have the resources to manage it.

“Two people died last week outside City Hall,” said Robert. They were just looking for somewhere to get out of the cold and rain.” It was a tragedy that would have been barely noticed in San Francisco where citizens have become immunized to persons living on the street. For Sacramento, the tragedy was unsettling.

“It was terrible for the people displaced,” Burke said to the reporter. “The important consequence was the rest of us seeing these huge numbers suffering in this weather. It made people realize that this is not okay.”


Cal is one of the individuals who call themselves the “River Dwellers.” Once, he was one himself.

Cal, 38, spent five years living along the river as a binge of alcoholism, drug abuse and petty crime roiled in his life. Cal knows how to navigate the world that once was his own. Stay a respectable distance when approaching the homeless and carry a bone to distract a dog protecting its territory.

“There used to be a lot of concealment,” Cal said pointing to a spot near the river. “It was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. If the cops can’t see you, they leave you alone. When the water rose, it washed away the cover.”


While Cal visited his previous residence, Max, 65 walked up — a dazed look on his face.

“The riverbanks was home for seven years,” Max volunteered. Max had been sleeping in a tent left behind by someone who moved on. During the height of the storms blowing through, Max’ tent got torn away.

“I slept in a puddle,” said Max. “It was more terrible than anytime I had in Vietnam. I compare it to over there.”


Susan, 58, was forced out of the bushes by the storms. Homeless since losing her job at a Subway Sandwich shop, four years ago, she had to move her tent to B Street after the flooding.

“The river came up way high,” Susan said. “The Rangers came; made us leave. We just had twenty-minutes to vacate.”

Now Susan is easy to find. Another homeless person living on the street watching the traffic.

“People stop by to offer help — bananas and stuff — and encouragement,” Susan said.

Now she’s eager to return to her spot on the river.

“There’s too much traffic here and every morning you have to wake up and pack,” Susan added. “I’d rather be by the river. The river is peaceful. It’s quiet.”

Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer and ghostwriter now living the expat life in Argentina. Never far from his coffee and Marlboros, he is always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email him at and join the million-or-so who follow his life and work on Twitter @ Journey_America.

Jerry says, “Thanks for being part of my wild and wonderful journey called life.”