Over the last five years, Alvin “Jay” Gehrts has seen — and experienced — some of both the worst and best in humanity that the Lompoc Valley has to offer.
Gehrts, who suffers from mental illness and has battled drug and alcohol addictions for much of his life, has spent much of this decade living in the Santa Ynez riverbed just outside the Lompoc city limits. Over that time, he said he’s been victim to a vicious beating, has witnessed countless other assaults and has even seen friends die from overdoses and injuries.
“People think they’re going to go down there and be safe and escape from society, and then they find out it’s just the opposite,” he said of the riverbed, which is home to 40 or so of Lompoc’s estimated homeless population of 110.
Despite that seemingly bleak existence that Gehrts describes, he also saw another side of the Lompoc community — one that, for a while, he was reluctant to accept.
Gehrts, who will turn 54 this month, said that people from support agencies and businesses, and even just random residents, would often go to the riverbed and offer supplies and help to those who were living there. Two months ago, Gehrts finally decided to accept the assistance that he was offered and he said he’s been blown away by how the community has gone above and beyond to help on his journey to get sober.
Mark Ashamalla, a specialist with Transitions-Mental Health Association in Lompoc, said he’s hopeful that Gehrts’ story can be an inspiration to others who need help, as well as a spark to bring the many support agencies together for a unified effort to help rid homelessness in the city.
“It takes a village,” Ashamalla said. “I’d like to believe that our outreach sparked (Gehrts’ turnaround), but it takes so many agencies and so many people. … I just want more of a connection and more of a flow to how we can get people off the streets and what we can get done.”
For Gehrts, who is known on the streets as “Uncle Jay,” the decision to get sober ultimately came down to an unwillingness to lose his best friend, a pit bull mix named Klifford.
Gehrts, who was born in Portland, Oregon, has lived in Lompoc since he was 8 years old. He said he began drinking at around 9 years old, smoking marijuana at 11 and then got into harder drugs, like cocaine, acid and PCP, in his early teens.
“By the time I was 19 years old, I was sticking needles in my arm — injecting cocaine,” he said. “From there, it’s been about 32 years that I’ve been, off and on, injecting drugs. I’m surprised I’m alive.”
His childhood mostly was spent bouncing from foster homes to eventually boys camps affiliated with the justice system. In adulthood, he was in and out of jail regularly and spent many years in prison.
After living in riverbeds in Ventura and Buellton in recent years, he eventually settled in the Lompoc riverbed.
Ashamalla met Gehrts during one of his weekly visits to the riverbed with a Santa Barbara County nurse. Ashamalla, who primarily helps individuals suffering from mental illness, encourages the homeless people to seek out help, but he said they often fight his efforts.
Gehrts was no different.
“He had been down there many times to make sure I was OK and that I had food and water and whatever else I needed,” Gehrts said of Ashamalla. “I’d have a half-gallon of booze sitting next to me and my pipe, and I knew he wasn’t a police officer but I just didn’t care. I didn’t want to stop drinking or doing drugs and I told him very plainly I didn’t want to live ‘up there.’ I told him I was happy the way I am, which was a lie. I was happy I wasn’t living up there (in the city), but inside I was miserable.
“But nevertheless he kept coming down there through thick and thin.”
Gehrts’ outlook changed when Klifford bit someone on the leg and Gehrts was faced with losing him.
The dog was taken away by animal services, but thanks to the efforts of several support agencies and local courts, Klifford’s life was spared. In order for Gehrts to get his dog back, though, he would first need to get clean and get a home, and Klifford would need to show that he can obey commands.
Gehrts wasted little time in working to fulfill his obligation. He moved into the Good Samaritan Bridgehouse and began utilizing mental health services for counseling. He spends parts of his days at the Helping Hands Resource Center in Lompoc, which provides a computer lab, dining area and other resources for homeless residents.
While that was all going on, the La PAWS animal shelter in Lompoc, which is operated by the county, got the local Shadow’s Fund animal sanctuary to take in Klifford during the day while Ashamalla keeps Klifford at his home during the night and on weekends.
At Shadow’s Fund, which built a kennel just for Klifford, the dog is not only enjoying a place to live and play but also is receiving training from Sue Penn, an obedience instructor with Dogs Gone Good.
“This is a unique situation for us,” said Shadow’s Fund co-founder Cody Rackley, who noted that Penn is spending additional hours with the other dogs at the facility thanks to her twice-a-week visits for Klifford. “Everybody’s helping each other make the situation work for him, and we’re all helping each other with other things as well. It’s really a collaborative effort.”
Gehrts said he is especially thankful for that collaborative spirit. In addition to the previously mentioned agencies, he also singled out Shawndel Malcolm, a volunteer with the Planting a Seed community service organization, as being helpful with his talks and efforts to clean the riverbed of used needles and other debris.
During his time in the riverbed, Gehrts said he also was aided by businesses, including Big 5 Sports, which provided coats in the winter, and residents who left items like blankets, shoes, clothes and dog food on a stump near the riverbed for the homeless people and pet owners to use.
“We feel like outcasts down there, like society has given up on us, and you compound that with illness and drinking and we feel very isolated and rejected,” Gehrts said. “That’s where we go to hide. We kind of feel comfortable in close proximity to each other. We find our little hole down there and hide in it and shut the whole world out. But the truth is, there’s people that care.”
Gehrts said he intends to join Ashamalla and others and make trips back to the riverbed to help others once he has made more progress in his own recovery.
“Countless people helped me, and I want to give back to them,” he said. “It’s a big thing to me. I need to give back.”
Ashamalla said he’s hopeful that will happen — and that the many support organizations will band together to help others the way they’ve all helped Gehrts.
“This community wants to help the homeless, but we’re so unorganized,” Ashamalla said. “You see all kinds of volunteers in town. We’ve got to collaborate and we’ve all got to get together.”