Lompoc’s Homeless Triage Center for Riverbed Dwellers Closes Amid Successes
More than 60 people were served, well beyond the expectations of city officials.
When the city of Lompoc evicted homeless residents from the Santa Ynez Riverbed, Police Chief Pat Walsh wasn’t sure how many would show up at a triage center aimed at getting them help.
That center’s 30-day mission ended Wednesday, and Walsh said he considered it “a huge success, a way-beyond-our-imagination success.”
Final numbers weren’t available, but the triage center served more than 60 people, “which is unheard of,” the chief said, adding they expected 10 to 15 people to seek help.
City Manager Jim Throop, who has participated in similar homeless efforts in Paso Robles and Oxnard, noted the number of people who sought help.
“We’ve just gone above and beyond from what I’ve been able to find,” Throop said.
“I think it really boils down to the trust that the Lompoc Police Department has been able to gain with that clientele,” said Bob Nelson, chief of staff for Fourth District county Supervisor Peter Adam.
Representatives of multiple nonprofit organizations also brought their ongoing relationships with members of the homeless community, Nelson noted.
“Lompoc’s got some really special people and really high-quality people they’ve been able to throw at this and invested in this for a long, long time,” Nelson said. “You’re getting to see the fruits of that labor.”
Through the triage center, more than two dozen people entered into substance-abuse treatment programs, Walsh said. This is a key step since homeless shelters require people to be free of drugs.
Several people were reunited with family members after travel costs were covered to help make that a reality.
In one case, someone donated a motor home to a couple employed locally but lacking housing.
“It’s typical Lompoc. We take care of our own, and even though a lot of these folks that were living in the riverbed had addiction problems and they were stealing stuff, at the end of the day, they’re our community and we help them,” Walsh said.
“I’m really proud of what the city and the county have done. The county has pulled out the stops with their outreach,” Walsh added. “So we get our river back and we help people in the process. I just don’t know any other community that has done that.”
A rising number of thefts blamed on riverbed residents, multiple hard-to-access fires at encampments, and a homicide where the suspect ended up firing his gun at police officers who fatally shot the man in a Lompoc neighborhood helped spur the lan for evictions and cleanup.
But advocates note the homeless residents span the gamut — some criminals but some simply down on their luck. Some welcomed services, others remained resistant to the offered help.
City staff has estimated the 3-mile stretch had approximately 70 encampments developed over the years, with large amounts of debris posing concerns along with human waste.
After months of planning, the city began issuing eviction notices to riverbed residents in mid-August and established Sept. 10 as eviction day. The temporary triage center opened at River Park to help connect homeless residents with assorted services and provide a place to stay.
“Just 30 days of nonstop advocacy by everybody out here has been amazing,” Walsh said. “You talk to the folks who are in the triage center, they are probably healthier than they’ve been in a long time because they’ve been surrounded by people that care.”
It wasn’t all perfect. In hindsight, Walsh said, the outdoor setting proved problematic as drug sellers tried to access their would-be customers despite efforts to end addictions. The location near the riverbed made it too tempting to return.
Meetings also should have started months beforehand, Walsh added.
“We were thinking we were planning well, and then all of a sudden it was upon us,” Walsh said, adding that it caught some social services agencies off guard.
Public Defender Tracy Macuga and members of her staff spent hours at the triage center moving belongings on the first and final day in addition to offering legal and other assistance.
“The team assembled did great work in a short time, but the gaps became apparent, including the absence of supportive housing or transitional housing,” she said.
With residents evicted — and regular police patrols to ensure they don’t move back to the riverbed — the city is continuing to the next phase of removing biowaste and needles, eliminating debris of encampments, trimming vegetation and assessing riverbank stabilization. This effort could cost up of $500,000.
Last week, Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham toured the riverbed and triage center as the city and county seek help including with covering costs.
Cunningham noted Lompoc’s comprehensive approach.
“I’m super impressed with the humane and I think intelligent way this has been handled so far. I think this is a real tribute to the city and to the county,” Cunningham said.
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