A plan to remove residents from the Santa Ynez Riverbed in Lompoc will require community support and efforts to link displaced people to services, Police Chief Pat Walsh said.
The Lompoc City Council this week supported the chief crafting plans to evict homeless residents in the Santa Ynez Riverbed.
Police said there has been a boost in crimes and drug use linked to some of the people living in the area.
Walsh presented the council with three options — remove people and debris from the riverbed, remove people from living there but leave debris, or do nothing — after emphasizing he doesn’t believe homelessness is a crime or even necessarily a law enforcement problem.
“I believe that these problems — homelessness and mental illness — are a community issue …” he said. “I’m asking our whole community to address these issues, from county mental health, housing authority, transitional mental health, drug and alcohol rehab, business owners, residents, our schools and our churches. I think we all have a role to play in this.”
One tally estimated the riverbed population at between 60 to 100 people, including families with children.
However, sales and use of methamphetamine have exploded among some living in the riverbed, along with incidents of violence and thefts, police said.
“Virtually it’s kind of the Wild West,” Walsh said, adding that a detective looking for one man in the area ended up taking seven people into custody who had active warrants for their arrest.
Councilman Jim Mosby shared his own encounter with a homeless resident who threatened him while armed with a syringe.
“It’s a killing zone between bridge and bridge,” Mosby said. “It’s definitely not a safe place.”
The elaborate illegal encampments have also meant large piles of trash, according to Walsh, who displayed a slideshow to depict the situation.
The report came months after a homicide in the riverbed stemming from a dispute between two residents over a woman.
The homicide suspect was fatally shot by police after firing a gun at officers.
“These latest incidents showcase just how dangerous the riverbed has become,” Walsh said.
A number of other deaths have occurred and residents have started fires in the riverbed to try and stay warm on cold nights.
Walsh, recently returned from the National Summit hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum, said Lompoc is not the only community facing challenges presented by homeless residents.
One idea met with success in other communities has been having an officer dedicated to handling homeless issues, with a goal to nudge those in need to services. Arrest is a last resort for those officers who work to build relationships with residents and service providers, he added.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem; we can’t cite our way out of this problem,” he said. “We do have to address bad behavior but I think we do have to address it in a compassionate manner. “
With the council’s concurrence, the police chief said he will craft his comprehensive plan including compassion and common sense for cleaning out the riverbed, giving residents 30 or 60 days to move out of the river.
“We’ll have a whole array of people there to help,” he said.
Similar actions have led to litigation in other communities, but Walsh said crafting the plan will ease the potential for future lawsuits.
Over time, the chief said, he has asked homeless community members why they are in Lompoc.
One man said he remains in Lompoc due to residents’ generous nature which earns him $100 to $150 a day, so he chooses not to get social services, Walsh said.
“We’re actually enabling the behavior with our generosity,” he said.
Walsh said he wanted to deal with the issue now while the number of residents remains manageable, nothing that Fresno had to deal a illegal encampment exceeding 7,000 people.
“I don’t think we can afford to look the other way,” Councilman Victor Vega said.
Representatives of several service providers said their organizations were prepared to support the effort.
“I look at this opporunity as kind of an intervention,” said Chuck Madson, Coast Valley Substance Abuse Treatment Center.
He pledged to find residential treatment beds for those who want help with addiction.
“This is a huge opportunity for those that provide those services in our town to come together and make a huge difference,” Madson added.