Ventura County law enforcement and social services workers visited homeless encampments along the Santa Clara River on Wednesday morning, urging people to relocate to legal housing.
Sweeps of such camps are a regular occurrence along the Ventura River, but this was the first such visit to the Santa Clara in seven or eight years, officials said. The five-hour program was an attempt to warn those illegally camping along the riverbank that they were trespassing and to offer them assistance in securing better accommodations.
"Our mission wasn't just to go out there, push them off and deal with it in a strictly law enforcement way," said Capt. Ron Nelson, spokesman for the Sheriff's Department. "We brought in social services because we want them to live in a legal and healthy environment."
Nelson said an increase in crimes near the camps provided another incentive to begin to move people out of the area.
Oxnard police said aggressive panhandling at nearby businesses has increased. Last month, a homeless man was arrested in connection with the May 24 stabbing death of a construction worker who was helping expand the Ventura Freeway bridge crossing over the river, department officials said.
Oxnard Senior Police Officer Steve Funk, who helped coordinate the visit, said about three dozen law enforcement personnel and eight social services workers split into teams to investigate four areas of loitering and illegal camping. The Sheriff's Department had already scouted areas along the river by helicopter.
Although they visited more than a dozen campsites, members of the teams ended up speaking to fewer than 20 people, Funk said.
"We thought we'd come in contact with more people, but some of them get up early to collect cans or go to the city to feed themselves," he said.
Most of the land is in county jurisdiction, but some is owned by Oxnard and Ventura, or by ranchers. Officials mapped the locations of campsites with electronic equipment because some were hidden behind plants, Funk said. He estimated it would cost $20,000 an acre to clean up the encampments.
Joyce Wilde, program manager for the county's Law Enforcement Crisis Intervention Team, called the visit a "holistic approach" to homelessness. She said as many as half of homeless people are believed to have mental problems, so with an estimated 8,000 homeless in Ventura County, "that's a lot of people out there who are mentally ill."
Transients were given the names and phone numbers for nearly a dozen agencies with programs to help the homeless and those dealing with substance abuse, mental health issues or domestic violence.
Peter Brown, Ventura's community services manager, was involved in a sweep of Ventura River settlers in November 2004 that led to the creation of River Haven, a tent city self-governed by the homeless.
He said Wednesday's effort was the first step in getting people living along the Santa Clara River back on their feet.
"It's never our intention to make anyone's lifestyle more difficult. But living in a river bottom is never a safe or healthy environment for anybody," Brown said. "They need to be working within the system to get better."