SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It's Sacramento's newest type of drive-by.
On Thursday evening, a car pulled up to a few dozen homeless people gathered along a curb north of downtown. Three young men jumped out. In a flash, they handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water bottles and packages of crackers.
"We're giving back," Jaskarn Singh Johal of Yuba City stopped momentarily to say. "In our culture, (our) religion "… we have to give back to the community." Then he and his companions drove off for another delivery a few blocks away.
The three young Sikhs are participants in what has become a controversial trend in the River District, a warehouse area just north of downtown that is in the midst of transition to a mixture of offices and housing.
Business owners and residents complain that dozens of good Samaritans, often informal religious-based groups, are turning sidewalks, empty lots and street corners in the district and the nearby American River Parkway into group feeding zones.
They say the feeding areas are littered with debris, food wrappers, bottles and worse. Sometimes different groups drive up to the same spot at the same time to distribute food. Locals say they fear the street feedings are enticing even more homeless to the troubled area. They're seeking action from city and county officials, who say they're trying to find a way to limit the food giveaways, either through cooperation or — if need be — an ordinance.
The River District for many years has been a homeless magnet because of its concentration of social services and plentiful hideaways for sleeping by the river. The increase in drive-by feedings follows national news in 2011 spotlighting Sacramento's homeless problem.
That coverage, an embarrassment to the city, culminated with the police breaking up a large tent city near the river. Since then, the homeless have scattered into smaller, dispersed camps, Sacramento County officials say.
Joan Burke is director of advocacy for Loaves & Fishes, which serves lunches and provides a variety of other services and is a major hub for the area's homeless. She estimated that 1,000 people sleep outside in Sacramento every night, about 200 of them in the vicinity of the American River.
"The problem is not kindhearted people doing good deeds," Burke said. "The problem is we have so many homeless living outside. We should put our energy into putting those people in housing."
For Bruce Booher, however, the feedings are very much the issue at hand. One of the impromptu distribution sites has sprung up kitty-corner from the contractor's shop and warehouse. He said groups of homeless people sometimes block his access gate, sitting on the ground eating, then leaving debris, including uneaten food.
It scares business away, Booher said, standing in front of a fence with "No Loitering" signs positioned every few feet. Across the street, about two dozen homeless people sat on a sidewalk in the shade, waiting for cars to arrive with dinner.
"My business is dying," Booher said. He has warehouses on-site he can't rent. "Nobody is interested. People are afraid."
Gerald McAdams, who sleeps under a bridge some nights, and at Union Gospel Mission on others, said he sees nothing wrong with the feedings, but conceded that his fellow picnickers often litter.
"They just leave it in the street," he said. "I try to throw my litter away. I pitch in. I'm very conscious about that."
On Thursday evening, McAdams ate a sandwich, then chatted with Bhupinder Singh, one of the young Sikh men who brought the food.
"They are great guys," he said. "I'm glad they're coming out and showing their participation in the community."
Across the river in north Sacramento, resident Bob Slobe, whose family originally developed the area, is livid about the feedings. He says the city and county governments are just sitting by, allowing what he describes as wealthy do-gooders from outside the neighborhood to encourage "bums," including criminals and drug addicts, to cluster in camps in the parkway.
It's made the parkway and bike trail section too frightening for many people to use as a recreation area, Slobe said. He pointed to a shooting in the parkway last week. Police said a teenage boy was ordered to disrobe, then was robbed and shot in the leg.
"It's unsafe, unsanitary, there are needles, pornography," Slobe said of the parkway area.
County park officials, for their part, say they continue to roust people from camps and do cleanup, but they acknowledge that writing illegal camping citations isn't solving the underlying problem.
Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn and county Supervisor Phil Serna have convened recent meetings with local property owners, homeless advocates and others to discuss ways to redirect or focus the feedings and make the area safer and cleaner.
"We want a collaborative approach," Cohn said.
One idea is to limit ad hoc feedings to one or two spots, and pull together a list of the groups that do feedings, possibly connecting them via a website where they can sign up for given days and hours.
Homeless advocates suggest using a fenced city-county redevelopment agency-owned site near the Loaves & Fishes complex, or a nearby private warehouse. That approach, they say, would make it easier to oversee the feedings and clean up afterward.
If the various interests can't reach a resolution, Cohn said, he and Serna could explore writing a city or county ordinance that would place restrictions on public feedings, including possibly requiring groups to obtain a permit if they intend to feed more than a certain number of people.
"It is a balancing act," Serna said. "If there are people with good intentions who want to feed the hungry, who am I to say they can't do that? But it shouldn't happen in the American River Parkway, or happen to the detriment of surrounding communities who feel they have a disproportional share of those kinds of services."
Serna said he wants to see religious groups do more feedings at their own churches.
Johal, a young man in beard and turban, politely but passionately countered that notion by saying the closest Sikh temple in West Sacramento offers food to anyone, but downtown's homeless can't get there.
"We have the resources, the cars, the money, the food. We should come to them," he said.
Advocates for the homeless have warned city and county officials against trying to enact an ordinance that could be seen as an attempt to stifle religious freedom.
Loaves & Fishes also is working with Cohn on an offer to expand its court-ordered cleanup crew program to include local businesses. For about $100 a month, Loaves & Fishes leaders said, businesses could have supervised homeless crews do cleaning and gardening on their sites.
Burke said Loaves & Fishes is making the offer as a good-faith proposal to help clean up the area. But Booher and other business owners have not warmed to the idea, saying social service providers like Loaves & Fishes attract the homeless in the first place.
"You're charging me money? What did I do wrong?" Booher said. "Am I missing something? It almost feels like a shakedown."
The current debate is merely the latest firefight in a bigger, unresolved issue, said Steve Watters, executive director of Safe Ground Sacramento, a nonprofit advocacy group.
"We haven't done a very good job in Sacramento of dealing with this homeless population," Watters said.
His agency, working with Sacramento Steps Forward, is looking for sites to build transitional housing to get a few dozen homeless people off the streets every six months. Later this month, Safe Ground will unveil a prototype for a $6,000 cabin to be used for that task.
The goal, Watters said, is to secure a few parcels of land around the region to turn into communal living sites where some homeless people can live in safe and sanitary conditions as a first step toward moving to more permanent housing.
As the larger debate over what to do drags on, people who travel to the parkway to distribute food to the homeless say they're willing to work with officials if the goal is to organize more structured feedings, but not if government wants to shut them down.
Liz Green, an Oak Park resident who makes and serves food several weekends a month with friends, family and members of local churches, said the feedings give her joy — and are her way of pushing back against misplaced government priorities, such as spending city money on planning a basketball arena instead of homeless people.
"We fail as a society when we don't address these issues," Green said. "I don't know what compromise we'll be able to find."