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What is to be done? Tolstoy’s question is immediately relevant upon first opening the door of an abandoned shipping container along the American River. Abandoned in the sense that its owner has given up in frustration over its constant assault by vagrants. Abandoned in the sense that to the City of Sacramento, it is out-of-view from the general public, on land belonging to a third-party, and therefor does not exist and can be disclaimed. Abandoned in that it can be adjudged to be out of jurisdictional bounds.

However that shipping container is not unused. It has become a drug-den and an attractive nuisance as demonstrated by the abundance of used needles and half-eaten meals left to decay, as well as a place for romantic assignations evidenced by used condoms and the word “Love” scrawled on one door. But there is no love in the brilliant sunshine of these trash strewn, concrete pads on which the container sits – only honey-buckets lining the very back of the darkest corner of this receptacle, concealed on, and emptying into the American River.

The American River has become a receptacle for those “snarled and entangled in the extreme penury of things…” The river is a convenient place to hide human detritus while providing a false sense of confidence. Cities have become complacent with their tent-lined streets, but to wander along Sacramento’s rivers and streams is to witness the full-extent of squalor and failure. Politicians speak an infinite deal of new rounds of homeless funding, proclaiming progress because money is being spent. Yet the tales told along the river and near homeless camps tell otherwise.

Near the entrance of the shipping container lies a dead dog, or cat. The state of decomposition is advanced, so the distinction is irrelevant. Sink a spade into a patch of ground that looks clean, and indeed was recently cleaned. Turn over that shovelful of dirt, and the smell immediately informs that a trash pit has been unearthed: used needles, always needles; always batteries leaking their toxins into the soil and drinking water; clothing soaked with so much mud that a plain shirt weighs five-pounds or more; uneaten meals in single-use plastic containers; shredded canvases and bits of what once were tents now decomposing into attractive bite-sized pieces for fish to devour; and yes, plastic reusable bags for which Californians pay 10¢, ironically to keep out of landfills. One need hardly mention the Styrofoam which degrades into thousands of pieces. Some of the trash has been burned, and the fire damaged trees leave no doubt as to the cause…as to the excrement, some things shall remain unmentioned. But in summer, people swim downstream from this spot in nearby Discovery Park.

These problems are not new. During Tudor times (England in the 1500s), it is estimated that perhaps 20% to 30% of the population lived in poverty. Elizabethan prayer books “…implored mercy for the poor” according to Lucy Wooding in Tudor England. But a distinction was made between the “helpless poor” who “merited compassion,” and the vagrants who were undeserving and “…who had the capacity to work, but did not do so.” Towns feared that their limited resources for the “deserving poor” would be rapidly depleted if an overly permissive attitude was taken, so “vagrants” were sent back to their village of origin.

A great deal of money has been put towards seeking a solution to homelessness. And much more has been pledged for the future. So much so that tending to the needs of the homeless has become a multi-billion dollar industry. But why, for instance, is there an inverse relationship between funding and success? Over the last twenty-years, more funding has only resulted in growing numbers of homeless individuals. Could it be that the promise of free housing and services has attracted a new westward migration? In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the poor came to California seeking work rather than handouts. “Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create…” When the migrants reached California, they found an oversupply of labor and limited work opportunities. The opposite is now the case, and often idleness abounds. Quoting Steinbeck again “There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

The types of housing and services required are expensive. A unit of affordable housing in California costs $600,000. The Corporation for Supportive Housing published a report calling for a rather exact 112,527 apartments to be built at a cost of $67.9 billion – which is $603,411 per apartment unit. In the absence of supportive services, this housing is quickly destroyed, since drug addicted or mentally-ill residents are usually unable to live independently. Many fine organizations have attempted to remedy these problems. Yet the nonprofit groups which have been tasked with this intractable work often find themselves overwhelmed and short of funding or the technical expertise necessary for long-term success.

California purports to be a leader in environmental issues, yet its rivers warn that it is best not to follow some leaders.

George Orwell’s introduction to Animal Farm, written nearly eighty-years ago, is worth quoting at length:

If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing…