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Lompoc’s homeless triage center closes, Police Chief looks to the future

It’s been 30 days since Lompoc Police evicted the homeless living along the Santa Ynez Riverbed. The transitional space for the vacated transients shuttered Wednesday.

Lompoc PD say the last 24 hours have been a mad rush, trying to get the around 20 people still utilizing the triage center, into a shelter or treatment.

At it’s peak, the temporary site for Lompoc’s homeless served close to 70 people.

Authorities are taking a zero-tolerance policy with anyone returning to the riverbed, unless it’s to clean.

“Moving forward, we’re not going to allow people to go back into the river. It would all be a waste of time if we let people go back to the river so people need to know that those individuals that haven’t accepted this help are going to be in our community and so it’s going to seem like it’s more visible than ever because it’s not out of sight out of mind,” said said Chief Pat Walsh, Lompoc Police Department.

They may be gone but the damage they left behind is daunting and overwhelming – with a very distinct odor.

Eviction notices still flap in the wind.

“You can see the steps that they carved into the hillside,” said Sgt. Kevin Martin with the Lompoc Police Department.

The amount of man-made pathways and steps along the Santa Ynez Riverbed are astonishing.

Martin describes the structures, with a shower, doorbell and even a kitchen – that disappeared in days without a trace.

You have to watch your step as you navigate the steep terrain and heavy brush, there’s poison oak at every turn.

“God knows what you’ll find in their, needles, feces,” said Sgt. Martin, describing a massive hole that has been filled with dirt, to cover up years of garbage.

This is what was left behind.

“We’ve been documenting all of the sites and taking photos and logging their location with GPS. When I started counting them I worked from what we call “the hill” which is at {Hwy}1 and {Hwy} 246 that little Caltrans area out there and I work my way north and I counted about 165 sites which include bio–dump sites, trash sites and active campsites, when we started the project,” said Sgt. Martin.

A third world country nestled in Santa Barbara County, a city within a city.

“Above us is Riverside Drive, a complete residential neighborhood,” said Sgt. Martin.

Now city leaders are in a race against the clock, to clean up decades of encampments along the riverbed before it rains.

“Water could easily rise up to this level, pick all this up and start taking it down stream,” said Sgt. Martin. From there, water contamination and littering the ocean are points of discussion.

As Lompoc officials put out bids and try and figure out how to tackle the estimated $500,000 cleanup price tag, dozens of homeless people have a new lease on life.

“It was definitely better than just us displacing people. We can’t say it didn’t work when 20 people are in better situations than they were 30 days ago,” said Christie Alarcon, Community Development Program Manager for the City of Lompoc.

Alarcon says thanks to the triage center, 15 people went into emergency shelters and between 15 and 20 got into detox. Some were even reunited with family.

“One guy was ecstatic. He said you know what, I have an eight-year-old son I’ve never been a father to him, I am going to take the help and he’s in a long-term drug treatment program right now,” said Chief Walsh.

As the triage center reaches it’s expiration date, Wash says it’s bittersweet.

“This was never a 30 day fix. This was the beginning of help,” said Chief Walsh.

Walsh notes that having it outside created some challenges with the elements and it’s proximity to the eviction site was a recipe for disaster.

Walsh is transparent about what he wishes he would have done differently. “It’s hard to say, hey let’s get you help, let’s get you sober but we put you right next to the area where you can slide in and use your drugs with all your friends,” he said.

All in all, the triage center far exceeded Walsh’s expectations. “We did a lot of good,” he said.

“All of the outreach worker’s have a way better relationship now with the homeless because for 30 days they have complete access to them in the past, 90% of their time was spent looking for their clients,” said Chief Walsh.

Looking to the future, the Chief says law enforcement will be patrolling parks and their Homeless Liaison Officer will not let up.

“We’ve built a relationship amongst ourselves that we probably should’ve done a long time ago. So we all know each other now in the social services area and we’re all going to work together,” said Chief Walsh.

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