Today I speak with Dan Fehr, formerly a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game, someone who had many years’ exposure to the negative environmental impacts of homelessness near Redding’s waterways.
Fehr intentionally refers to occupants of “unlawful encampments” as “transients” rather than the term “homeless” in “homeless encampments”. He believes that the term “homeless” carries an implication of no-personal-fault on behalf of the person occupying the “unlawful encampment” – terminology he said can sometimes solicit unwarranted sympathy from the public.
“I sincerely sympathize with persons who are homeless for reasons beyond their control,” Fehr said. “But transients are many times homeless within their control.”
He acknowledged that substance abuse and/or mental health problems more than likely contributed to, or were acquired enroute to most transients’ current status.
Even so, Fehr said that his experience in the field led to this observation: “The vast majority of occupants of unlawful encampments choose their to live by a no-rules-lifestyle, and squander their social service entitlements on substance abuse, in-lieu of attempting to extract themselves from their situation.”
With that bit of clarification out of the way, let’s get to our conversation with Fehr.
Q: Dan, thanks so much for talking with me today. I know you are retired from the California Department of Fish and Game here in Redding. But you have a lot of information about homeless encampments from your previous work. Can you tell us about your former position?
A: I was employed as a Fish and Game Warden with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) in 1981, and retired at the end of 2008. My first 10 years were spent patrolling the coastal and bay counties surrounding San Francisco Bay and I transferred to Shasta County in 1991. Fish and Game Wardens are state peace officers and are deputized under the law enforcement division of the (CDFG).
Q: Most people probably don’t think of the CDFG when they think of homelessness. Why would the CDFG be involved with the issue of homeless encampments?
A: The primary mission and legal responsibility of the CDFG is the protection of inland and state water habitats and the native flora and fauna (plants and animals) that those habitats support.
Unlawful encampments are a huge source of biohazardous waste (human feces, urine, intravenous needles, etc.), hazardous waste (vehicle and alkaline batteries, flammable fuels) and solid waste (stolen/abandoned retail shopping carts, glass, cans, plastics and paper). In addition, unattended campfires start wildfires, which impact riparian (streamside) and oak woodland habitat, negatively.
Q: So from the CDFG’s perspective, it’s about protecting the environment?
A: From the CDFG’s perspective, preventing the above-described wastes from entering state waters directly or indirectly, is paramount. The Sacramento River, as well as many local streams, are habitat for endangered and threatened species (Winter-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead), and are utilized for recreation and domestic water supply for Redding and downstream communities. As mentioned above, fire, although a natural occurence, does not bode well in riparian and oak woodland habitats, due to the predominance of non-native grasses and blackberry in the understory.
Q: In your former CDFG capacity, what exactly did you do with regard to the homeless encampments?
A: As a fish and game warden, routine patrol of riparian areas (streamside) by foot/vehicle for the purpose of enforcing fish and wildlife laws (sportfishing licenses, bag limits, seasons, etc.) is a common activity.
Occupants of unlawful encampments were contacted during patrols and also specifically targeted during special enforcement details, which were in collaboration with the Redding Police Department (RPD) and the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The majority of unlawful encampments occurred on lands in the public trust and were in violation of local, state and federal laws and regulations.
Transients were issued citations for unlawful lodging on public/private property and unlawful contamination, both state code misdemeanors, as well as Redding Municipal Code and federal regulations. Computer record checks of occupants resulted in many in-custody arrests for warrants, as well as probation and parole violations. The RPD Community Clean-up Program provided inmate labor and transportation and disposal of waste, via work-release program and funds from the city’s solid waste utility.
Q: Is the problem growing?
A: Based upon personal observation and recent communication with members of the RPD, the economy and reduced patrol by law enforcement due to budget cuts, have led to increased numbers of unlawful encampments, both on public and private property, by at least a factor of 2.
Q: Where, exactly, are some of the prime places around Redding that had the most homeless encampment activity, and about which the CDFG was most concerned?
A: Unlawful encampments are pervasive along the Sacramento River and local streams, primarily due to access to water sources and concealability. Unlawful encampments generally are within walking distance of grocery/fast food businesses, which provide transients access to restroomsand opportunities for panhandling, theft of retail shopping carts, shoplifting and purchase of alcohol/groceries.
Q: What doesn’t the average Redding citizen know about this issue?
A: I believe most citizens are aware of the transient population in Redding, but their exposure is limited to their observation of the “Will Work for Food” sign holders and transient in-town migration during daylight hours.
Unless citizens get off the “beaten path”, most would be unaware of the magnitude of unlawful encampments or the gravity of environmental, public health and safety issues associated. Citizens of the Parkview Neighborhood has been subjected to the full-brunt of transient-spawned activity with their juxtaposition to the Sacramento River and spill-over from the South Market Street demographics.
Q: Because you’ve had a front-line view of this issue, do you have any thoughts about what causes this problem?
A: Notwithstanding the impact of current economic times and past/recent military veteran-conflict-induced-trauma, I believe the root cause of the transient/unlawful encampment issue is a failure of individual/societal/governmental entities to address “accountability” for an individual’s behavior and the lack of adequate governmental resources targeted toward employment, mental health issues and substance abuse programs.
Q: Let’s just say that everyone left the homeless encampments alone. What, from a CDFG viewpoint, would be wrong with that?
A: Unlawful encampments require continuous enforcement for associated environmental, public health and public safety violations. Open space and riparian areas would become “totally trashed” without the chronic abatement of hundreds of tons of refuse.
For example, during the decade of 1998 to 2008, over 1-million pounds of refuse had been removed, recycled and disposed of along the Sacramento River and local streams.
Associated criminal activity would become rampant and instances of major crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, hazardous material disposal, etc.) and lesser crimes (shoplifting, retail shopping cart theft, litter, fish and wildlife laws, etc.) would increase dramatically.
Q: If you were in charge, and money was no object, what would you suggest as a solution to the homeless encampment problem in Redding?
A: If money and resources were no object, I believe that the unlawful encampment issue would be a moot point. Since that is currently not the case, I believe that partnerships with organizations (Good News Rescue Mission, Northern Valley Catholic Social Services, People of Progress, etc.) which provide “hand-up” assistance (computer/internet access, job training, physical mail addresses, showers, laundry, clothing, temporary/permanent housing, drug-rehabilitation programs, etc.), rather than “hand-out” assistance, is the more effective course of action than some “enabling” that occurs with some programs.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.