debris
Lompoc officials estimate it will cost up to $500,000 to clean up the Santa Ynez Riverbed after evicting homeless residents from the area.  (City of Lompoc photo)

Removing debris from dozens of homeless encampments in the Santa Ynez Riverbed could add up to $500,000, City Manager Jim Throop said, adding that Lompoc still is seeking money from county, state and federal agencies to help cover the costs.

The estimate came out during a recent update on the city of Lompoc-led efforts to evict people living in the riverbed, a population once estimated at more than 100 people, and cleaning up the area.

Evictions occurred Sept. 10 after a month of warnings. The same day, a triage center set up at River Park logged 55 residents, higher than anticipated, Chief Pat Walsh said.

While still helping residents relocate and get assistance, city leaders also have started assessing the scope of the next phase removing debris from the riverbed, an effort likely to cost $500,000.

“We still to need to have other partners help us out,” Throop said.

The city also has authorized overtime costs for police officers involved in the effort, and $40,000 for expenses related to the triage center, although some donations have helped reduce that number.

In the coming days, a contractor with a boom crane will pull larger pieces of debris out of the riverbed. 

Other work calls for removing the dense trees and brush in the dry riverbed so the approximately 70 encampments can’t be camouflaged as easily, according to the city.

While residents have volunteered to help clean up trash, the police chief said the work is too dangerous due to used needles and hidden caverns posing potential peril to those helping.

Throop said he would like assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in addition to state and local partners.

“Because it is an emergency,” he said. “With the rains that will be coming this winter, the degradation that we have on that riverbank, it’s necessary to get something done. Why wait for that emergency to hit when the bank collapses? Why not have them help us before hand?”

There are also concerns that debris could clog the flow of water during winter rains, and that encampments may have degraded the river bank and put neighborhoods at risk of flooding. 

The triage center is expected to remain open until at least Oct. 9 to provide assorted services to people who previously lived in the riverbed area. Due to to the triage center and temporary homless camp, most of River Park remains closed.

Those who lived in the riverbed range from people who are self-reliant, those grateful for access to services, and others refusing to take advantage of services, Walsh said.

“It’s not for lack of us trying,” Walsh said, adding multiple social workers and others at the triage center remain ready to help. 

For instance, members of the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office have taken homeless residents to court to help resolve outstanding warrants preventing people from getting benefits.

“A lot of benefits have been restored,” Walsh said. “But if people don’t take advantage of it then we’re done in 30 days.”

Ten people sought substance abuse treatment or entered the shelter system, Walsh said.

“Which is really the key to this whole problem — most of the folks out there have drug addiction. If we get them off of their drug, maybe we can get them back to society and housed,” Walsh said. 

“I’m not going to sugar coat it — we still have criminal activity,” he said, adding some people have tried to return to the riverbed. 

Police have arrested three people for trespassing after they were caught attempted to return to the campsites, and officers plan to conduct daily patrols.

Those being disruptive or using illegal substances in the triage center have been kicked out to avoid affecting people trying to get off drugs, Walsh said.

Some homeless people from the Santa Ynez Valley or other communities have shown up at the triage center, but have been declined services.

“We’re not the homeless shelter for the whole county. We can’t be. We’re a small town. We’re stretched as its with 55 people,” Walsh said. “We’re being very cognizant of that.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.