Just south of the railroad depot in Grover Beach is a swath of trees that buffers Highway 1 from the Oceano dunes. A transient encampment occupying part of that open space was supposed to get cleared out at the beginning of January, but weather rained out that plan.
On Jan. 5, around 7 p.m., a 28-year-old male was stabbed at that same encampment in what Grover Beach police are calling an attempted murder. The victim is still in critical condition at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. On. Jan. 6, Police arrested Grover Beach resident Andrew A. Lerma, 26, in connection to the stabbing.
“The original schedule was to start clearing it yesterday,” Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters told New Times on Jan. 6. “And maybe if we had, we could have prevented this from happening.”
But wet, muddy conditions make it hard to do what’s necessary to safely and legally clear out an encampment full of people, tents, trash, and belongings. There’s dumpsters; big trucks; and numerous city, county, and state agencies that need to be hauled in. And once you get people and things out, the area needs to be secured with fencing, and social services need to be at the ready to help the campers.
Getting stuck isn’t an option if you want to do it right, according to Peters. So the action was postponed to Jan. 19, weather permitting.
And once the camp does get cleared out, the city plans on zeroing in on another transient encampment—this one’s in the Pismo Lake Ecological Preserve.
Vagrant activity stemming from that particular camp came up during public comment at the beginning of the Grover Beach City Council’s most recent meeting on Jan. 4. Several residents who live in the neighborhood around Charles Street and Margarita Avenue complained about an increase in crimes and homeless people coming out of the preserve.
Sharon Biddle called the encampment a virtual city with hundreds of people living in it, describing prostitution, drug deals, and a tent city.
“It’s like Mad Max of Thunderdome down there,” she told City Council members. “And the word is out that that’s the place to go, and I’m scared.”
She, along with several of her neighbors, begged the city to do something about it, to get in and move them out before crime gets worse in their neighborhood.
Chief Peters responded to concerns during the meeting, saying the police department was very aware of the problems, and several of the recent crimes, such as bike thefts, had been successfully solved. But to come up with a workable solution to clear out the camp, Grover Beach would need to team up with the city of Pismo Beach and the State Parks Department, because each party has jurisdiction over some portion of the preserve. Peters assured meeting attendees that the collaboration was already in motion.
The police chief told New Times that Grover Beach has experienced an increase in its homeless population and related crimes in the last three or four years, but he was quick to delineate the differences between the three very different segments of that population often lumped into the same category.
“Homeless” refers to a group of people who are without a home because they are going through a rough patch that they are actively trying to get out of. Transients are people who pass through town on their way to somewhere else. And vagrants are stuck in homelessness either by choice, mental illness, or addiction.
That last category is the group Peters attributed increases in vagrancy-related crimes to—things like “panhandling, theft, vandalism, and unfortunately violent activity like stabbings.”
“There’s no clear factor we can really put at it,” Peters said. “It is something we have to constantly stay on top of.”