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Issues relating to homelessness were back at the forefront last week for the Lompoc City Council, which gave its approval for the city to declare a state of emergency regarding the cleanup of the Santa Ynez Riverbed, and also appropriated up to $532,000 toward the massive undertaking.

Both of those votes were unanimous during the two-hour meeting Oct. 2, when the council also voted unanimously to declare a shelter crisis and authorize the city to participate in the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program.

The meeting also included an update from city leaders on the homeless triage center that is set to close Wednesday at River Park, as well as an appeal from a woman living at the triage center who asked the council to consider extending that end date.

Although the council voted separately on the state of emergency declaration and the allotment of the $532,000 for the cleanup, the issues were closely related.

City Manager Jim Throop said the state of emergency declaration could open the city up to funding and/or manpower from the state or federal governments to aid in the cleanup of the Santa Ynez Riverbed, which is where many of the Lompoc Valley’s homeless residents have lived for several years.

“Everything down there, the degradation of the riverbank … it’s very substantial,” Throop said.

Throop noted that the move was proactive. He said that while there isn’t necessarily an emergency situation right now, that could easily change if expected rains arrive this winter and begin moving all the debris in the riverbed downstream toward the ocean.

Throop acknowledged that the full cost of the cleanup will likely go well past half a million dollars, and suggested that the city could get some relief by tapping into funds set up through the California Emergency Services Act and the state’s Disaster Assistance Act. The move could also lead the state to declare its own state of emergency and seek federal funds from FEMA.

“This doesn’t mean that I have a pot of gold at the end that I’m going to go get — it’s the first step,” Throop said, suggesting it was similar to the idea of not being able to win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.

“Our plea will be to say, ‘Do something now before we have a disaster on our hands,’” he later added.

While the status of any outside funding remained unclear, the council gave its approval for city administrators to utilize $532,000 from the city’s water reserves to put toward the actual cleanup.

Stacy Lawson, a senior environmental coordinator for the city, noted early in the Oct. 2 meeting that phase one of the cleanup was set to conclude the next day. That phase involved assessing the city-owned property, sanitizing the human waste and removing needles and other sharps. Further, she noted that some tents and tarps had been removed and some of the more sophisticated structures were demolished.

For the second phase, the city will bring on a contractor to manually remove the several tons of remaining debris and another contractor to trim brush and foliage along the riverbank.

“It’s going to be a long process — there’s a lot of stuff in there,” Lawson said.

Throop noted that the work with the foliage was critical, both for environmental reasons and so as to allow the Lompoc Police Department to better monitor the riverbed to ensure that people don’t return to live there.

If the city opts not to clear the brush, he said, “we will have individuals immediately moving back in with a very clean house to move into, and we can’t do that.”

Lawson suggested that the city may look at utilizing goats to keep the foliage under control moving forward.

Prior to the council’s votes on the matters, Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh led a presentation in which he updated the council members on the status of the triage center, which began accepting clients Sept. 10, the first day that people were formally evicted from the riverbed.

Walsh noted that many problems have persisted at the triage center. Among those, he said, was that the center put a lot of drug addicts in one location, which made it easy for drug dealers to move in and make sales. He also said that people suspected of being human traffickers were kicked out of the campsite.

In total, Walsh said that three people had been arrested at the triage center due to warrants or drug use, and another eight people had been arrested for trying to re-inhabit the riverbed. One person who was arrested, Walsh said, had a knife, a hatchet, a loaded syringe and had allegedly made comments in the past about wanting to commit suicide via police.

“It’s been really hard to manage,” Walsh said, before commending his officers and all the people who have spent time at the triage center to offer support services.

Walsh noted that not even the support agencies got along all the time, but he said that everyone’s heart seemed to be in the right place.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the triage center has been bumpy, (with) not all entities seeing eye to eye, but we all understand that we come from a different angle,” he said.

Christie Alarcon, the city’s community development program manager, said that, as of Oct. 2, there were still 30 clients at the triage center. The most who were there at any point, she said, was 62.

Alarcon noted that five people left the center on their own, 10 were asked to leave due to rules violations and one was asked to leave because he wouldn’t accept a detox offer after it was arranged for him. On the positive side, she said, one person was able to get behavioral treatment, and six people agreed to enter rehab programs for drug and/or alcohol addictions.

“All of these accomplishments have occurred in three weeks — that is amazing,” Alarcon said of the latter group who took advantage of the assistance that was offered.

Despite the issues that have taken place at the triage center, a woman who addressed the council Oct. 2 said she had recently become homeless and felt safe at the triage center. But with the end of the center just a week away, she said she was “a little apprehensive of what’s going to happen to me.”

She said she was preparing for her second interview for a job at the Chumash Casino, and was hopeful that she could find someone who would rent a room to her. Others at the triage center, she noted, might need more help or services before finding someplace secure to go after the triage center closes at noon Wednesday.

“It’s all a process and it takes steps and nine days might not be enough,” the woman said to the council Oct. 2. “I would please like you to take consideration of that and find it in your hearts to reassess the situation.”

The council did not enter into any discussion about extending the triage center.

Walsh acknowledged that there are things he would do differently if he could restart this whole process. Among them, he said, would be to have the triage center further away from the riverbed, which would prevent people from returning to the riverbed at night, and to have the center located in a less accessible area for the public, which could cut down on unsavory characters taking advantage of the situation and afford the clients at the center more privacy.

Still, Walsh said he was proud of everyone’s efforts and he encouraged representatives of other cities to contact him before moving forward with their own similar plans, “so they don’t make the same mistakes.”

“Even with our faults and mistakes,” Walsh added, “I still think we did it the right way, the compassionate way.”

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

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Reporter

Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for Lee Central Coast News. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.