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Lompoc City Council Discusses Challenges of Homelessness

Meeting unites representatives of multiple organizations working in community

The Lompoc City Council this week discussed how to respond to the various challenges associated with homelessness in the community. Click to view larger
The Lompoc City Council this week discussed how to respond to the various challenges associated with homelessness in the community. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Tackling the topic of homelessness, the Lompoc City Council this week heard from those dealing with the challenges and celebrating successes, in addition to a riverbed resident and a man concerned about elaborate encampments.

Approximately three dozen people attended the 2-hour town hall meeting, where representatives of various groups shared about their work with homeless residents.

"I don't know if we came up with any real solutions, other than maybe a sign at the Bridgehouse," Mayor Bob Lingl said at the end of the meeting, referring to a neighbor who asked for a sign to stop people from mistaking his property for the homeless shelter. "There's a lot of people out there that are providing services." 

Residents and business owners have increasingly complained about various crimes blamed on some homeless individuals, along with elaborate camps — including houses and stoves — set up in the Santa Ynez Riverbed.

Police Chief Pat Walsh said he has instructed his officers to be “compassionate and fair, but firm” in dealing with homeless residents, with one member of the force assigned as a liaison officer.

“I’ve said it before — homelessness is not a crime,” Walsh said. “It’s not a crime to be homeless, nor is it a police matter.”

Still, his officers address bad behavior, including those who are drunk in public, urinating in public, panhandling aggressively and stealing.

The issue of aggressive panhandling hit close to home for Walsh after his wife encountered one man demanding money. 

But Walsh said people who give cash enable panhandlers, and stop them from getting help through available agencies. 

The increasing number of people living in the riverbed poses a complex situation, Walsh said, adding that he is talking with his counterparts at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

“The political will needs to be there to tell the police to go move people out there for illegal camping,” Walsh said. “It’s a very sticky problem, because if they’re not in the river, they’re going to be in town.”

As the vegetation dries out, the growing weeds also pose a fire danger, the chief said.

“I don’t have a solution for that, but I do think it’s time to probably go in and evict folks, and that will help some leave, and some get nudged into saying, ‘You know what, I could use a house or I need help,’ he said. “That wouldn’t be a unilateral discussion I would make.”

Councilman Dirk Starbuck pointed to the Sheriff’s Department’s efforts to halt all-terrain-vehicle riders in the critical habitat of the riverbed.

“Does the county intend to just keep doing enforcement on recreational activities, or is there going to be a movement toward doing something with the homelessness there?” Starbuck asked. 

The police chief said discussions are underway with Undersheriff Barney Melekian to craft a plan that would be taken to elected officials for approval.

In addition to law enforcement officers, the eviction process would include representatives of groups providing services to homeless residents, Walsh added.

Participants in Tuesday’s meeting included representatives of various nonprofit and government agencies such as the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, the Good Samaritan Shelter, Planting a Seed, Trinity Church and more.

Earlier this year, C3H conducted a countywide survey of the homeless, discovering the Lompoc population rose 89 percent from two years ago. 

However, C3H Executive Director Chuck Flacks said that instead of a population boost, the hike likely reflected a better outreach effort that meant homeless residents felt safe participating.

Jeff Shaffer, C3H community coordinator, said data has shown that 60 percent of homeless residents have connections to the Lompoc Valley, Shaffer said. 

“It’s not like they’re going to move on,” he said. “This is kind of their city.”

Those who are homeless include families and individuals.

One man is an 83-year-old Korean War veteran who workers are trying to connect with services and ultimately get him a place to live. Some who reside in the riverbed are working people whose salaries don’t cover the high cost of living, speakers said.

One riverbed resident said those who live along side her are like a family.

“Some of us, yeah, we do chose to live like that," she said, adding that some cannot be indoors. "We should have the respect to have that privacy of why we can’t comply with the normalcy of day-to-day living.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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