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Homeless encampments are growing in the Santa Maria Riverbed

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Posted at 8:09 PM, Jan 31, 2022

Santa Maria residents who live near the riverbed are expressing concerns over growing homeless encampments near their homes, but Santa Maria city officials say the area is more than just their responsibility.

The trailhead along the riverbed is used by many Santa Maria residents as a recreational space but some people are thinking twice before visiting.

"We get scared when we come to walk because it's a place where you come to relax and sometimes they're right by the side here and we get scared,” said Rosie Vega, Santa Maria resident.

"My daughter says she gets scared. Sometimes we want to walk more further up but there are more encampments,” added Georgina Alonzo, Santa Maria resident.

While the encampments are in the Santa Maria Riverbed, Santa Maria city officials say, for the most part, they're not responsible.

"The vast majority of the land within the Santa Maria Riverbed is actually outside of the city limits. It's mostly in San Luis Obispo County,” said Santa Maria Public Information Manager Mark van de Kamp.

He says the area near the Santa Maria River Bridge at Highway 101 is owned by Caltrans and other areas are owned by private owners.

"As for the city, we own about 150 acres of land in the riverbed that is mostly near the Suey Creek crossing bridge. Although it looks like it is or may be right next to city limits, it's not entirely in the city nor is it entirely the responsibility of the city to clean it up,” van de Kamp said.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office says members of its CAT Team are in regular contact with those living in the riverbed, but they say many of the people receive help and services across county lines in Santa Maria.

One local non-profit says they’ve been sending staff down to the riverbed for a year now to offer assistance such as food, clothes, water, and hygiene products.

"The people who are experiencing homelessness in the riverbed have pretty much hit rock bottom. They have substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and they've probably burned every relational bridge they have, so they don't have anywhere else to go. The riverbed is the only place they can physically go,” said Chris Rutledge, Central Coast Rescue Mission Director.

He says the biggest reason they are doing the outreach is to be part of a bigger conversation

"Each person has their own story and one by one you have conversations and try to meet the needs of the people who are living in the riverbed. Those individual conversations ultimately led to helping the bigger problem in our city,” Rutledge said.

Santa Maria city officials say they periodically do clean-ups but they have to be organized in cooperation with the agencies that own the land.