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It's Packing Time for Riverbed's Dwellers

Seeking to protect transients from storms, authorities relocate more than 150 people from dry Ventura River to a shelter.

December 01, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Even though he had plenty of warning, moving day came too soon for Randd Leinke.

In three years of living on the Ventura River bottom, he managed to collect piles of bicycle parts and mounds of clothing. His bamboo-lined compound was crammed with walkers and wheelchairs, golf bags and beach umbrellas -- all of it jealously guarded by an ill-tempered mutt named Petey.

So when Ventura police arrived at daybreak Tuesday, at the launch of an unprecedented river-bottom relocation and cleanup, the 52-year-old tree trimmer was scrambling to clear his encampment and leave his riverbed home for good.

"I'm trying to get all of the important things out," said Leinke, removing wheelbarrow loads of personal items destined for storage. "I think we could have all stayed down here, but I don't think the city saw it that way."

Racing against predictions of winter rains, police, community leaders and homeless advocates embarked on a campaign to relocate the more than 150 people who make their home on the dry riverbed on Ventura's west end.

Officers pushed through the underbrush in near-freezing temperatures, uprooting transients in plywood shacks and nylon tents. Police cruisers and fire trucks snaked along river-bottom trails, tires crunching to a stop at camp entrances previously marked with orange paint. Sheriff's deputies on horseback rode herd on the operation from atop a nearby levy.

Authorities have been warning about the effort for weeks.

Transients were permitted to remove their belongings and store them free of charge before cleanup crews arrived to haul away the discards. Police plan to post the area permanently off limits, signaling an end to a vagabond village that has drawn the down-and-out since at least World War II.

"I didn't really want to get out at this time, but that's the way it is," said Leonard Biga, 52, who spent the morning moving his belongings to higher ground after two decades of river-bottom living. "I don't think they'll be able to keep people out. This place has been here a long time."

The river-bottom dwellers were directed to an assistance center called Camp Hope, a three-day shelter at the National Guard Armory that will provide medical attention, pet care and other services designed to get the homeless back on their feet. When that ends, the winter warming shelter will open at the armory, giving the homeless somewhere to stay until spring.

Efforts also are underway to create long-term solutions, including a year-round shelter in Ventura.

"Obviously, the issue that is most important is the safety of the people living down there," city spokeswoman Jenise Wagar said. "We don't want them putting their lives at risk."

There have been efforts before to reclaim the river bottom, a hobo jungle created by railroad tramps below the point where the Southern Pacific train trestle straddles the Ventura River.

In the early- and mid-1990s, Ventura City Council members proposed campgrounds for the riverbed dwellers after torrential rains and flooding forced transients to relocate.

While the campgrounds never materialized, Ventura city and county officials used money and momentum generated by the floods to plot a sweeping strategy for river-bottom residents, creating a model assistance program that helped dozens of squatters find housing and jobs. But slowly, despite new city laws banning river-bottom camping, the population built up again. This year, the encampment was the largest in a decade.

Concerns persist about environmental damage and the lack of sanitary facilities on the river bottom. There have been 28 fires at the site this year and, over the last two years, police have responded to 120 calls for service.

There also are concerns about the river-bottom residents. Police said floodwaters drowned two squatters in separate storms in the 1990s. With that in mind, police and others crafted the evacuation plan and vowed to keep the homeless out for good.

Assistant Police Chief Pat Miller said officers will conduct periodic sweeps of the area. He said officers also will crack down on aggressive panhandling and overnight camping in the city's downtown to ensure the river-bottom homeless don't spill into other areas.

"Obviously, the things we've tried in the past did not offer a permanent solution to the riverbed issue," Miller said. "Acknowledging that, we said there's got to be a different way to do this. Only time will tell whether we're successful."

By 10 a.m. Tuesday, Doc Doyle and Bonnie Talley were just about out of time. They had spent most of the previous night preparing to go to Camp Hope, packing clothes and sleeping bags and their two dogs, Tobey and Gizmo.

But unlike Camp Hope, the winter warming shelter won't allow dogs, so they don't know where they'll be staying by the weekend.

"Whatever long-term plans they have, I hope they follow through," said Doyle, 50, picking through the last of his belongings. "Otherwise, everyone who is down here is just going to end up on the street."

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