The Lompoc City Council has declared a local emergency in the face of a bill of at least $532,000 to clean up the Santa Ynez Riverbed after evicting homeless residents from multiple elaborate encampments.
The council’s action Tuesday night followed a report — and preliminary assessment — on the effort planned for several months and implemented in recent weeks.
Officials declared Sept. 10 eviction day and opened of a temporary triage center at River Park. The center will close at noon on Oct. 10.
The city’s action also asked Santa Barbara County and Gov. Jerry Brown to declare emergencies to open the door to federal, county and state funding.
“It doesn’t mean I have a pot of gold at the end that I’m going to go get,” City Manager Jim Throop said. “It’s the first step.”
The encampments have left piles of debris in the riverbed, including human waste, used needles and more.
Some encampments built into the side of the riverbank caused substantial damage and have made officials worried about flooding during a heavy rain year.
“Our plea will be to do something now before we have a disaster on our hands,” Throop added.
Throop said he hopes to contact the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the condition of the riverbank and determine what repairs might be needed to stabilize it.
The City Council also authorized up to $532,000 in additional appropriations to cover the costs of removing debris from the 3-mile stretch using heavy equipment.
“We might be back,” Throop said. “We don’t know.”
Another aspect calls for removing vegetation, trimming willows and more, so homeless residents can’t be camouflaged.
“We have to do this quickly and get it done as fast as possible,” Throop said, expressing concern that heavy rains would wash debris to the beach.
Earlier in the meeting, Police Chief Pat Walsh and other staff gave an update on the eviction process.
On Sept. 10, the triage center opened with 56 people the first night, a much higher number than seen in other communities.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it. The triage center has been bumpy,” Walsh said, noting a difference of opinion among service providers.
Security also proved problematic, with drug dealers trying to sell to users and human traffickers seeking women, making it hard to manage despite the security guard at the site, Walsh said.
Three arrests were made in the triage center for warrants or drugs. One person arrested had a knife, a hatchet and a loaded syringe while threatening to commit suicide by cop, Walsh said.
“I’m really proud of the officers and the way they’ve approached this endeavor, and the way they’ve treated people,” he said.
But successes also were noted. Six people entered drug- and and alcohol-treatment programs.
“That in itself is a huge success,” said Christie Alarcon, community development program manager.
Five clients entered Good Samaritan Shelter, meaning they were clean and sober so eligible for that service.
Two clients were moved into permanent housing. One was reunited with family out of the area and another was put in permanent supportive housing, she added.
“All of these accomplishments occurred in three weeks. That is amazing,” she said, noting that many homeless residents are resistant to take advantage of services.
The triage center was set up to ensure evicted residents could get the help they needed to re-enter society, but not necessarily a step leading to permanent housing, in part due to the housing crisis, city officials said.
Others have resisted substance-abuse treatment help offered through the triage center.
“My direction for the officers going forward is zero tolerance for individuals reinhabiting the river. If they’re allowed to go back into the river, then this was all for naught, and we’ll be back at this in a couple of months,” Walsh said.
He expressed appreciation for the county providers and nonprofit organizations that stepped up to help the city effort.
“Mark Ashamalla and Brian Halterman are my heroes,” said Walsh, pausing as he became emotional while referring to a pair of key leaders. “They have more love in their hearts than 10 men.”