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Collaborative solutions 

Oceano, the local environment, and homelessness

The Oceano beach area has some unique features that distinguish it from the Five Cities area. The rural area west of the Pacific Coast Highway is bordered by a large sandy beach with an interior lagoon that empties into the Arroyo Grande Flood Control Channel to the south. This is a stunning area with sensitive habitats that include a diverse assemblage of plants and animals. Some of the fish and birds that reside or migrate through this area are threatened or endangered species.

Local responsibility for this area includes the San Luis Obispo (SLO) County Department of Public Works, the SLO County Sheriff's Department, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Within Public Works resides the Zone 1/1A group that manages the Arroyo Grand Flood Control Channel. The Sheriff's Office's southern patrol station in Oceano provides a community action team (CAT) and homeless outreach program with the goals of reducing recidivism and helping homeless find alternatives to their lifestyle while ensuring public safety and security. The California Department of Parks and Recreation manages the Oceano beach area including a large portion of the region south of the flood control channel with moderate to heavy vegetation. Both the CAT and state parks act as an interface between the county's social services, veteran's services, and the Five Cities Homeless Coalition and the homeless they encounter.

Beginning in 2010, areas within and adjacent to the Arroyo Grande Flood Control Channel became a preferred location for vagrants, transients, and the homeless. From 2010 to 2016, this group trashed large portions of this area with illegal camps. These became magnets for more homeless and further accumulation of garbage (e.g., trash bags, plastic containers, bicycles, shopping carts, Styrofoam, rotting food, discarded electronics, batteries, filthy clothes, human waste, drug paraphernalia, needles, etc.). This garbage is harmful and in some cases lethal to the habitats and species that reside here. Left in place, much of this garbage would have been washed from the flood control channel and polluted the beaches of Oceano, Pismo Beach, and Shell Beach during our wet weather period.

During 2017, individuals within these agencies did a uniquely meritorious job of reaching out to the homeless to assist them in seeking help and guidance for their particular issues. However, most obvious to us is the dramatic reduction in the number of homeless and removal of a large accumulation of trash at abandoned camps.

The Department of Pubic Works, working with the CAT, located and removed more than 16,000 pounds of garbage from the Arroyo Grande Flood Control Channel during the 2017 cleanup. Nola Engelskirger and Rich Rose are part of the Zone 1/1A Flood Control group and led this environmental cleanup. Both Nola and Rich walked the levees of the channel, and Rich coordinated the use of a drone to identify campsites in the channel. The CAT includes two officers, deputies Ron Slaughter and Toby Depew who respectfully notified the homeless and their need to vacate about 20 to 30 illegal camps on county property. The deputies were persistent in their communications and accomplished this without issuing any citations or making any arrests. Zone 1/1A followed up with assets such as large trucks and trash bins to locate and remove at least 8 tons of garbage. Rich continues to routinely inspect the channel area and performs additional cleanup work to maintain the benefits achieved.

Similar to the CAT, state parks, led by Sgt. Michael Lack, located illegal camps on their properties, gave notices to vacate while offering alternatives to homelessness. After 30 to 45 days of frequent notification, all-terrain vehicles with small trailers were used to remove trash from secluded and hard to reach locations. An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of garbage were removed from very inaccessible areas near the Oceano beach. Again, no arrests or citations were issued. This activity, including working to provide assistance to the homeless is not new to state parks. In 2016, they removed 43 tons of garbage from sensitive habitats near the Meadow Creek watershed along Fourth Street in Pismo Beach and Grover Beach.

The above noted individuals represent regulatory entities with different missions who developed unique approaches and solutions to a common problem. When appropriate, they shared resources and worked together; the CAT and Zone 1/1A collaborated to help the homeless leave and then clear the camps of garbage. State parks acted in a similar manner and made cost-effective use of the California Conservation Corps. Each of these groups working at the lowest organizational levels implemented effective solutions using innovations that required no additional resources or cost to their existing budgets.

While homelessness is challenging, the actions of these individuals have made this area safer while helping to ensure a clean and healthy environment. We believe their good work could be used as a model (e.g., small teams who established their own clear objectives, self-management with innovative approaches) for future solutions to maintaining the environmental quality that benefits those who live in or visit Oceano. Δ

John Carter and Joe Schacherer are residents of Oceano. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or join the public discourse by emailing a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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