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'Trying to survive': Lompoc's homeless riverbed residents react to plans for police sweep

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A native of Oklahoma, Travis W. said he had been living life on the road as a vagrant before he was dropped off by an acquaintance in the Lompoc area about two months ago.

Travis, who asked that his last name not be revealed, has lived in and around the Santa Ynez riverbed on the outskirts of Lompoc ever since.

“It’s been the toughest couple months of my life; just the survival factor,” the 19-year-old said Thursday evening before trekking back to his encampment for the night. “Just living day-to-day life is a lot harder than people realize.”

His current way of life, along with the lifestyles of the estimated 60 to 100 other people who call the riverbed home, could be on the verge of a significant shift.

Just days before Travis shared his plight with Lee Central Coast News, Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh received approval from the Lompoc City Council to begin developing a plan to rid the riverbed of all people and debris. In advocating for the sweep, Walsh argued that the nearly 3-mile stretch of riverbed between the Robinson Bridge east of the city and the Highway 1 bridge to the city’s north is rife with violent crime, drug use, theft and untold safety hazards.

Travis, as well as some of the other residents of the riverbed, responded to the threat of a sweep with a simple question of their own: Where do they expect us to go?

“I wish we had somewhere better to go or something better to do, but all we have is trying to survive out here,” he said.

Community issue

In his presentation to the council, Walsh said it will take an entire community effort to handle the situation correctly. He acknowledged, though, that it won’t be an easy process, particularly for those Lompoc residents who are already 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.

“And they’re gonna expect us, the police, to solve all those problems," he added. "We will address what we can, but people who own property will have to address what they can as property owners. That’s not a cop-out; it’s just we’ve got to work together.”

Freddie, a friend of Travis’ who also declined to publicize his last name, said Thursday that he spends a lot of his time in the riverbed. Unlike Travis, the 25-year-old Freddie grew up in the Lompoc Valley and said he technically lives with his parents in Vandenberg Village.

Still, he said he frequents the riverbed because that’s where all of his friends are. He noted that his situation is not unique and said he was against a sweep of the riverbed not only because it would displace people who could be out of options but also because it would break up strong — though perhaps different than those in “normal” society — bonds that have developed among the riverbed occupants.

“There’s a community down here, you know,” he said. “Everyone helps each other out. Yeah, we steal from each other and are a bunch of f***in’ tweakers and s***, but the fact is we always help each other out down here. … There are people that come down here to help, but there’s more people that come down here to f*** s*** up.”

Travis agreed with that assessment and suggested that those causing the trouble should be the targets of any law enforcement efforts.

“If they went through and did a sweep where they got rid of the people they were actually looking for, then so be it,” he said. “But, don’t mess with people who don’t have a choice to be down here.”

Underlying issues

Both Travis and Freddie acknowledge that they struggle with mental health and addiction issues.

Travis said he has bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He said he self-medicates, usually with marijuana.

Freddie didn’t divulge the exact nature of his mental health problems but said his temperament usually comes down “to how I’m dealing with it at the time.”

He said he also self-medicates, though his drug of choice is heroin.

“I try to do that as much as possible, because it helps,” he said.

The rise of methamphetamine use and sales in the riverbed were among the issues raised by Walsh in his address to the City Council. He also pointed to a series of recent deaths, including two that were believed to be overdoses and a Nov. 19 homicide after which the suspected killer was shot and killed by police.

Freddie said the dangers are all too real for him.

He said he witnessed that November shooting and spent at least a moment thinking he might be among the victims that day.

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“I was the first one to run to the tent after it happened,” he said. “I got there so quick that the guy who actually shot (the victim) pointed the gun in my face as I was running up toward the tent. He was like 10 feet away. That was pretty traumatizing.”

Joining forces

In Walsh’s presentation to the council, he called on community agencies — including those that deal with physical health, mental health, addiction and homelessness — to come together.

Mark Ashamalla, a mental health professional who has done regular outreach with the residents of the riverbed, estimated that a vast majority of the riverbed dwellers are native to the Lompoc area and have family and familiar faces nearby.

He lamented the fact — as have others who have done outreach — that agencies often don’t work together as well as they could and are frequently “drowned out” with bureaucratic red tape.

He said he was hopeful that the people in the riverbed would get the help they need if and when they are displaced.

Travis said he was hoping to move back to Oklahoma as soon as he could. In the meantime, he spends his mornings collecting firewood and kindling so that he can have warmth at night — another hazard mentioned by Walsh — and then goes into the city to get clean water and to solicit handouts from shoppers.

On Thursday, he had a cart with several grocery items as he headed back to his campsite.

“People don’t like handing out money to people out here because a lot of these people use drugs, but I’ll ask them to walk in the store with me and buy the food and that’s helped me out a lot,” he said.

Moving forward

Walsh didn’t give an exact date for when he intends to present his plans for the sweep — those plans will presumably include time frames for evictions and cost estimates for removing the several tons of items from the riverbed — but he said he would begin working on it in earnest.

As those plans progress, the diverse riverbed community, which is often hidden in the shadows of Lompoc, will likely keep operating as usual — never knowing what will come next.

“Any time you stay down here, there’s always so much that can happen,” Freddie said.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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