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River Dwellers Urged to Leave Before Storms Hit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hoping to clear out a homeless encampment on the Santa Clara River bottom before a barrage of winter storms hits, Oxnard police are warning squatters to find other shelter or risk being washed out by floods.

Forecasts of severe El Nino winter weather have prompted police to canvass the bamboo-covered portion of the river bottom near the Ventura Freeway and Wagon Wheel Road.

Police fear that if the homeless people there do not leave, floods will remove them--just as about 100 shanty dwellers in the Ventura River bottom were washed out nearly three years ago.

“If we get this weather,” Oxnard Police Sgt. Bryan MacDonald said, “it’s going to create a nightmare.”

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Although authorities have known about squatters in the Santa Clara River bottom for years, they said they were not aware of the size of the encampment until police searched the thicket of arundo and willows within the past week.

Police estimate that 25 to 35 people are living in “semi-permanent” structures, such as plywood shacks and castoff trailers. They range from those in their 20s to senior citizens, and include a pregnant woman, Police Officer Joe Johnson said.

“There’s trash all over, old abandoned refrigerators, food stuff lying around,” Johnson said. “It’s a health hazard.”

Many river bottom dwellers do not fear the predicted storms, the officer said.

“They’re saying they’re [on] high enough [ground] and the water’s not going to go that high,” he said. “They feel they’re out of harm’s way. But I don’t think they are.”

Indeed, a 39-year-old river bottom resident, who identified herself only as Claudia, said she feels safe in the plywood shack she shares with her boyfriend, Dave, 33.

The couple said they will abandon their abode if forced out by rising flood waters, but not a moment sooner.

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“This is not the way I want to live the rest of my life,” said the woman who declined to give her last name. “But this is our home, and it’s pretty cool and quiet. I’ve got a queen-size bed.”

They said they have shared the shack for the past few years with five mixed pit-bull dogs. Plastic tarp and a battered American flag drape the wobbly structure.

The couple said they get by on $150 a week--$120 from Claudia’s food stamps and $30 Dave makes mowing lawns. They said they have a credit line at the nearby Wagon Wheel Market, and rely on their neighbors in the homeless community if they run short of cash.

“Someone’s always got something to eat if someone else doesn’t,” Claudia said. “It’s like a family down here.”

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When forced to move to higher ground during wet winters in the past, the couple have stayed at the National Guard Armory’s homeless shelter in Oxnard.

But Gov. Pete Wilson slashed the $1 million earmarked for the winter homeless program last month. Meanwhile, local legislators are lobbying him to restore the money.

Oxnard city officials have told Santa Clara river-bottom dwellers who gather at a local park for weekend meals to get in touch with the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities and line up other winter housing options.

“I think they’re in for a rough winter,” said Carol Rolberg, the Rescue Mission’s associate director.

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Oxnard police in recent days have photographed the encampment to document the size of the shanty town. They said they plan to meet soon with sheriff’s officials to develop a strategy to relocate the squatters voluntarily--before flooding turns it into an emergency evacuation.

The Santa Clara River falls under the jurisdiction of the Ventura County sheriff, and Oxnard police want the Sheriff’s Department to take the lead in the preemptive operation.

Sheriff’s spokesman Keith Parks said the department has no immediate plans to oust those living in the riverbed, even though it has been alerted to the problem by Oxnard police.

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Parks said that the heavy rains normally do not arrive until late in the year--giving authorities several more months to take action to avoid a crisis.

Correspondent Scott Steepleton contributed to this story.


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