Chuck Madson, a director at Coast Valley Substance Abuse Treatment Centers, said he had sat in on several meetings related to homelessness in the Lompoc Valley before he finally decided that he needed to see the situation firsthand.
Madson, who is closing in on 13 years of sobriety after battling his own addiction to methamphetamine, joined with some outreach workers and ventured into the Santa Ynez Riverbed that runs along the eastern and northern borders of Lompoc and is home to most of the area’s homeless residents.
“I was shocked,” Madson said of what he saw in the riverbed.
“My specialty is addiction and drug use,” he added. “I come from a history of addiction. … What I saw as I went into the riverbed was so many extreme signs of addiction: Needle caps everywhere, drug baggies everywhere, burnt foil — every imaginable sign of addiction was in every camp that we went into.”
Madson shared his experience during a luncheon titled “Reality of the Riverbed” that was hosted Thursday at the Embassy Suites by the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce. About 45 people attended the gathering, at which a handful of panelists, including Madson, provided information about the homeless situation in the area, as well as updates on the proposed cleanup of the riverbed, which is where an estimated 100 homeless people live.
That latter topic — a sweep of the riverbed was first proposed by Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh to the Lompoc City Council on Feb. 6 — was among the primary matters discussed at the luncheon.
Lompoc Police Capt. Deanna Clement began the conversation by introducing Officer Mauricio Calderon, who was appointed two weeks ago as the Police Department’s homeless outreach liaison.
Calderon, Clement noted, had already made contact with 29 homeless people and had provided assistance to five of them with things like helping them get into rehabilitation facilities and/or reuniting them with family members.
“In 16 days, he’s had an impact,” she said, adding that Calderon recently drove a homeless woman, who had a ticket, to the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport so she could return to her family in South Carolina. “It is going to get even better from here on because he’s going to establish a rapport with these people that are living in the riverbed.
“And when I say people, we have to remember that these are people,” she added. “As a community, as the police department, as the outreach groups that I’m working with — what we’re going to do is we’re going to contact these people and give them options.”
The Lompoc Police Department’s plan, according to Clement, is to work alongside several partner agencies that offer support services each step of the way as officers begin to evict people from the riverbed or otherwise convince them to leave.
That plan will involve establishing a triage center where people with nowhere else to go can be temporarily housed. Clement said that some locations have been identified for such a center, but that a group is still being sought to manage it.
“This is not gonna take place overnight; it’s a long process,” Clement said.
She said that this summer will present a “perfect storm” to get people out of the riverbed. There will be some construction going on in the riverbed beginning in July, she said, and the annual release of water from Cachuma Lake is scheduled for early August, meaning that water should arrive in Lompoc around Aug. 20.
Clement stressed that the riverbed cleanup will be done “the right way.” She specifically pointed to Orange County, which had to foot the bill for thousands of hotel vouchers for homeless residents who were improperly removed from their encampments, as an example of what won’t be happening in Lompoc.
“If any of you have ever been into the riverbed, you are seeing things that are absolutely horrifying,” she said. “People are living in houses that they have built. There are people who have built structures that have showers, toilets, decks, and they have made them their home.
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“The city is not going to rush in," she added. "We are not going to be in the situation that Orange County has put themselves into.”
There are about 100 homeless people living in the riverbed, plus another 100 or so that are living in vehicles or on the streets of Lompoc, according to data compiled by local homeless outreach groups. Madson said he estimated that probably 90 percent of the people in the riverbed are suffering from drug or alcohol addictions.
Both Clement and Madson pointed out that being homeless isn’t a crime and that homeless residents deserve compassion.
“I would like to remind everybody that they are still members of our community, speaking as a member who is in recovery,” Madson said. “These are not bad people; these are people making bad decisions based on addiction and alcoholism. It’s unfortunate that the crimes that are being committed, probably most of those by practicing addicts, are taking away from those that really deserve the services in the riverbed, (like) the families, the females, the children.”
Jeff Shaffer, a director with Home for Good (formerly C3H), noted Thursday that the success of the cleanup will depend in large part on the homeless people themselves. They cannot be forced into anything, he said.
“We all make decisions (and) we’re gonna do what we want,” Shaffer said. “No one’s gonna arm wrestle me, for the most part, to decide my future based on their plan. So, we need to really be listening to people — what they want, what they need — and get them to that next step.”
That point was also stressed by Madson, who noted that changes in law have limited what police officers can do with someone caught using or possessing drugs.
“We, as a society, have changed regarding the consequences we’re giving to drug addicts,” Madson said. “The only thing that got me clean after 15 years of daily methamphetamine use was incarceration in prison. That’s the only thing that got me clean.”
Although incarceration is no longer an option in many cases, Madson suggested that the outreach groups and the impending cleanup could help remove some of the comfort that people might feel by being hidden in the riverbed and help spur people to seek change.
“Like any addiction — I’m sure you’ve watched the show 'Intervention' or stuff like that — there has to be a consequence,” he said. “Right now, we live in a city that is perfect for the homeless and the environment that we live in. We have a riverbed right on the edge of town and individuals can go down there and they can set up camp, they can make themselves comfortable and continue in their addictive behavior. It’s perfect.”
Madson encouraged community members to not give money to any homeless individuals, but to instead give food if they’d like or donate that money to an organization that works to get homeless people clean and housed.
Calderon, who spoke briefly at the luncheon, said he’s found that many people in the riverbed seem willing to accept help. He recently helped remove a family of 10, he said, and will be involved in the dismantling of two large encampments this weekend. Members of that 10-person family, he noted, even volunteered to go back to help with the cleanup.
“A lot of people down there … are good people,” he said. “They’ve just obviously run into a fork in the road where they can’t get back on their feet.”
Clement noted that the Police Department is looking for businesses that may be willing to donate large dumpster bins — in new condition — that can be used to hold the possessions of the people that use the triage center. She said the hope is that only 10 or so people will need to be triaged once the cleanup effort reaches that point.
She also pointed out that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is among the partners in the cleanup — the riverbed is owned by the city of Lompoc, but is under county jurisdiction — and noted that volunteers are still being sought for the cleanup itself.
“It’s not gonna be throwing things into dumpsters; it’s gonna be taking bulldozers in there,” she said. “It’s a huge, huge undertaking.”
Other panelists at the luncheon included Dinah Lockhart, the deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Community Development Division, and Emily Allen, the director of homeless and veterans impact initiatives for the United Way of Northern Santa Barbara County.
Following the cleanup, Clement said that officers would regularly check in on the riverbed to ensure that it doesn’t become repopulated.
“We're not gonna let the riverbed ever get to the point that it is now,” she said.