Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 6:51 pm | Fair 76º


Ron Fink: Evicting Homeless From Lompoc Riverbed

There are scores of homeless camps in the Santa Ynez River bed stretching for a couple of miles from an area near Hwys. 1 and 246 to where Hwy. 1 crosses the river on the north end of town.

Folks living in these makeshift camps migrate daily into the city to beg money, shoplift, create disturbances and commit petty crimes.

Following a series of serious incidents in the riverbed camps, the problem has become acute. What to do about it and which government agency should do it remains an open question.

Using stolen and salvaged materials, these vagrants have set up a community of sorts where they can hang out with people of a like mind; shiftless, frequently addicted, mentally ill, poorly educated, unable to assimilate into socially accepted groups and often without regard for the rules of society.

For those of you on the South Coast, you see them in the heart of a once-pristine tourist destination on and around State Street, on the beaches and around Milpas Street in Santa Barbara.

The stench of their human waste, their endless begging and their attitude in general has driven many businesses and visitors away from this area. This is the picture in almost every community in the state.

In downtown Los Angeles, the sidewalks were built wide to accommodate what was once a workforce of thousands of folks every day in offices, factories and eateries in the early days of LA.

The thousands of pedestrians and the businesses they worked in have been replaced by hordes of homeless camps lining the sidewalks for several square blocks.

In Lompoc, they chose the riverbed because it was somewhat remote from the community in general and people left them alone.

At first there were just a few, then the numbers grew as they learned they could either steal what they wanted without fear of prosecution or just take the handouts well-meaning people were giving them as they held their handmade signs.

The riverbed is seemingly a no-man’s land for law enforcement. Since it’s outside the city limits, the Lompoc Police Department has neither the budget nor the obligation to police the area.

The county sheriff also has a limited budget and with only a couple of deputies to patrol more than 300 square miles in the Lompoc Valley, the riverbed is not a policing priority.

So, if they remained below the radar, the homeless population could live without fear of any interference from the law.

But, since the only rules they seem to follow are those they create themselves, they have become very visible.

Like the homeless on State Street and in downtown LA, they continued to push the limits as do-gooders pressed local politicians to “just leave them alone, give them what they want, and they’ll behave themselves.”

But, being who they are, they couldn’t behave themselves, and here in Lompoc over the last couple of years there have been murders, rapes, assaults, robberies and several fires among the many camps.

Lompoc Police and Fire departments, being the closest to the area, are usually first to arrive when something goes wrong.

Since the camps and the people in them are just a few yards from where children play, and families live, the Lompoc City Council has taken an interest in “cleaning up the problem."

All it will take is a lot of General Fund money, cash collected to serve the incorporated area of the city, to solve a problem in another jurisdiction.

There are lots of issues to be resolved. First is the law-enforcement issue with crimes against people and outstanding warrants; next are the fire-prevention issues; and last, the improper storage and disposal of human and chemical waste in the river bed.

These camps also violate every environmental rule that has been established to protect critical habitats, plants, birds and animals.

At a recent City Council meeting, the police chief was asked to provide an update on the situation. The pictures he showed were eye-opening to folks who have never seen the filth surrounding the makeshift camps.

The council directed him to come up with a plan to clean up the place. But Police Chief Pat Walsh warned it won’t be a painless process, particularly for those Lompoc residents who already are unhappy with the issues created by homelessness in the city.

“People might be complaining now, but if we do this, they’re gonna be complaining more,” Walsh said, referring to the sweep, which would likely drive many homeless people into the city.

With many already camped in parking lots, in hedges, behind commercial buildings, next to the public library, and sleeping in plain view on the streets during the day, Walsh is right; it will only get worse.

Continuing to think we can “solve the problem” only creates more give-away programs. I liken it to having weeds in your grass; if you don’t keep control of them, they will eventually take over your yard.

Is there a solution? If you have one that will eradicate the problem, not just move it, please tell policymakers.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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