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SB County homeless camp cleanup efforts get boost from formerly homeless man

GOLETA, Calif. - A man who was once homeless is now leading an effort to clean up camps that are an environmental risk in Santa Barbara County.

Already there have been cleanups in Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Lake Cachuma and Goleta.

At each site, hundreds of pounds of trash, debris and leftover camping areas have been removed. Already nearly 16,000 pounds have been hauled out.

There are more than 20 sites currently on the target list.

The environmental non-profit, Heal the Ocean (HTO) has been surveying the sites, and assisting with funds. They are coordinating with Brian Borgatello of MarBorg Industries and HTO advisor Harry Rabin CEO of On the Wave Productions.

The work taking place by Earthcomb and its founder Andrew Velikanje has been videotaped and posted on the group's website through YouTube.

Velikanje was once homeless and has personal experience with the lifestyle in these camps.
 He's getting paid by HTO and there's a budget for others.

Santa Barbara Sheriff's Deputy Ben Sandu is the Goleta Community Resource Officer. He has been going in to the camps with outreach workers to provide the necessary assistance to relocate those living in these areas, and give them services.

"I help them find housing  and other needs.   I do what I can to help them out," said Sandu. "We were able to find at least temporary housing for a  lot of the folks  in one of the shelters in Isla Vista that was just built." He says he was not interested in writing citations if he can provide options, education and assistance.

According to HTO, in his report to the COVID-19 Task Force, Rabin gave a comparison between his survey and that of February 2021 to lend a perspective of current homeless activity:

  • The number of active homeless encampments has declined: In February 2021, there were 102 camps; Today (August 2021), that number has decreased to 55;
  • The estimated population of individuals without housing is also declining - February 2021: 260-320; August 2021: 125;
  • Around 67 homeless encampments have been cleaned up or removed since February 2021;
  • Levels of trash, refuse, and contamination has decreased substantially since February 2021.

The latest site on South Kellogg Ave. was picked up Monday morning. It was abandoned with debris and liter in multiple areas next to San Jose Creek.

Velikanje looked at the area and also thought of the other sites still on the list and said, "gosh it's just seemingly endless."    

He is leading the effort with determination and a coordinated effort. "I mean just having been there, a lot of these guys they just don't consider that someone has to pick up after them," he said. One of his friends was helping and getting some pay for his work.

Velikanje had tools including pickers, shovels and rakes. Personally he liked using his hands.

"It's quicker  a lot faster without the picker, we've got plenty of pickers for the team but   \everybody's got their style  and this one's mine," he said.

Heal the Ocean Executive Director Hillary Hauser says this process will clean up the camps faster than what has been happening. "There's still a lot of Yak, there's still a lot of talk," she said. "We've been trying to get on this for years,  then Andrew fell into our lap.  We said 'Let's do it'".

Hauser appreciates the social media presentations of the clean up effort to get the word out. "He runs the video fast so it looks like ants scurrying around. "

Velikanje said he is working to keep the debris from getting away and into the down stream flow.
"Come the next storm or a little bit of rain a lot of this is just going right down to the ocean.  Can't have that," he said.

The program is also providing jobs, at $20 dollars an hour.

Velikanje said, "Yes  I can use as much help as we can get paid help and endless amounts of hours and huge projects are going to be going for the next few months."

In just a few minutes he had several bags of trash. "This is damage control. This isn't a "end it forever."  This is just   only trying to manage what is constantly being added to the densest liter population I've ever seen," he said.

Sandu also provided a box of large Caltrans sturdy orange bags for the debris. They were much more durable than the ones being used. He said, "I've handed out hundreds of those and  a lot of the folks have filled them up with trash or whatever they need to fill them up with and if it is trash. They leave them on the side of the freeway   and they get picked up by Caltrans."

The Kellogg site was on property run by Schwan Excavation and Hanson Aggregates. Both companies supported the program, and provided easy access. Schwan also donated a large roll off for the crew to toss in all the debris bags. That will be taken in to Marborg by Schwan at no cost to Heal the Ocean. By the end of the day it was nearly full.

Marborg will also be coming back with a hand crew on Tuesday for a final sweep to clear out anything left behind including dangerous needles or drug paraphernalia which had been seen in the area.

The items bundled up had an interesting range from bike and cart parts to a portion of a drum set up. There was also a year book from Arroyo Grande and a partially completed drawing of the Santa Barbara Old Mission. A lot of discarded clothing and blankets were on the ground and in the trees.

The camp was in an area not far from several fires in the freeway corridor over the last year.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will be taking up the issue of homeless camps and related concerns Tuesday at their weekly meeting.

The presentation includes mapping of homeless sites, either in use or abandoned from Gaviota to Carpinteria. Rabin created the map and some calculations on homeless sites earlier this year and has updated his data for this meeting.

Velikanje says he has been picking up trash for years. He has even gone to the banks of Cachuma Lake to remove liter that is left from people at look outs and the Bradbury dam viewing area.

At times he can also be seen on Highway 154 where he has picked up bags of items from Cathedral Oaks Road to the summit.

For more information contact : Heal the Ocean at 805 965-7570.

Article Topic Follows: Environment & Energy

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John Palminteri

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