The efforts of the Los Angeles Sheriffís Department Homeless Outreach Team in collaboration with the Lost Hills Station, Malibu City officials, county officials and local activists has made a significant impact in our community as we enter Santa Ana wind season and the third anniversary of the Woolsey Fire.
As the community braces for that fateful day the fire ravaged the area in 2018, residents can rest a little easier knowing LASD’s efforts to clear homeless encampments in high fire danger areas around Malibu picked up steam recently with the final clean-up in the area scheduled to be completed on the day of the anniversary, Tuesday, November 9th.
Earlier this month, the collaborative efforts between the County, LASD, city officials and homeless advocates at the Malibu Connect event hosted by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office, included vendors offering medical services, housing resources with the assistance of sponsors The Saint Joseph’s Center, People’s Concern and Malibu CART.
The head of LASD HOST Team Lt. Geoff Deedrick and members of the North Division, Deputies Shai Sheklow and Sean Priestly, guided many of Malibu’s local homeless population to legal assistance, vaccines (even a barber!) and more available at the event.
On June 7th, shortly after the Palisades Fire and to the surprise of county officials (specifically first responders) given the on-going drought and catastrophic conditions in wildfire zones patrolled by LASD, Sheriff Alex Villanueva launched his Homeless Outreach efforts at the Venice Boardwalk.
According to my sources, County fire officals were preplexed at the Sheriff’s strategy to prioritize the Venice Boardwalk given the critical conditions and increased fire danger in the Santa Mountains. One official expressed his concern stating “Sand doesn’t burn”.
Shortly after the Sheriff launched LASD’s Venice homeless outreach efforts, City officials from contract cities serviced by the LASD, especially those in critical high fire danger areas already experiencing a dramatic rise in encampment fires, immediately went into panic mode.
The possibility of transients relocating from Venice into the extremely dense, dry hillsides above Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Topanga, Calabasas and Agoura was imminent and it was critical to get a strategy in place before Santa Ana Wind Season arrived. Malibu City council member Bruce Silverstein reached out to Lost Hills Station Captain Chuck Becerra inquiring about the station’s preparation in case an influx of transients migrated to the Santa Monica mountains after being forced out of Venice – especially under the threat of incarceration.
“Much is being said about the potential of yet even more transients migrating to the beaches and community of Malibu. Let me assure the community that this station is ready and prepared to deal with the influx of humanity.” Captain Becerra told The Current Report. “The population in Malibu soars during the summer months to levels that test our limits. A byproduct of this summer phenomena is that this station has been in the practice of bolstering is summer deployment to meet these demands. We will be increasing our staffing levels to meet the new challenges. Your station shepherded this community through a historic pandemic and this new challenge is no different. Do not fear what “may” be. We are ready.”
While the community has the highest level of confidence in the station since it became under the command of Becerra last year (which has also been scandal free since Sheriff Villanueva appointed him during the pandemic) you cannot always “see” what “may” be.
Multiple transient related fires per month – even weekly at times – occured in our Santa Monica Mountains right up until and throughout Sheriff Villanueva’s high-profile Venice Homeless sweep.
The Boardwalk clean-up sent an estimated 250 people searching for a new coastal location with the added threat by Sheriff Villanueva to arrest those who do not comply, made rural coastal areas more attractive to the unhoused as they have the ability to going virtually undetected.
Additionally, a drastically underfunded law enforcement, the hardest hit being county areas due to the Board of Supervisors defunding LASD in excess of $400 million, leaves the unincorporated areas of L.A. County – specificaly the canyons in the Santa Monica mountains, extremely vulnerable.
At press time, Lt. Jim Braden informed me that the station is seeking additional funds to enforce and prevent encampments from establishing and potential crimes committed in the in the county areas that are in desperate need of additional patrols during high-fire danger season.
At the beginning of July, the City of Malibu increased patrol levels in their contract with the Sheriff’s Department for the first time in over 15 years. The increase, largely due to local activism educating the community, in turn put pressure on city council to renegotiate their contract with the department to meet the growing needs of residents – which includes patrols designated solely for the homeless.
The increased patrol levels within the city limits will give the deputies the ability to cite, and/or potentially arrest, however, the real issue will be the Los Angeles County District’s Attorney whose pro-criminal directives are allowing virtually no consequences for breaking the law.
Council members Steve Uhring and Bruce Silverstein visited the Sheriff shortly after the high-profile Venice clean-up began. The meeting took place at the Hall of Justice along with members of the LASD HOST team to discuss efforts to clear the encampments in our wildfire zones that border the five cities patrolled by the Lost Hills Station.
The council members expressed fear to the Sheriff and the HOST Team at the meeting, that an influx of the Venice homeless population would relocate to our canyons. Additionally, Silverstein shared his progressive plan to tackle the homeless issue in our area with the Sheriff and the HOST Team.
The community, already suffering from PTSD due to the devastating Woolsey Fire in 2018 that destroyed thousands of acres and over 600 homes, was experiencing a heightened level of PTSD up until July of this year, with weekly fires occurring in dense brush areas due to encampments.
The catastrophic conditions in our region led to Malibu City Council pushing forward with their efforts to tackle the homeless issue at the July 21st council meeting.
“…We updated the city’s nuisance ordinance. If a nuisance is identified the city manager can make the call to have it removed and charge the cost of the removal to the property owner. Needs to come back for a second reading but it is a step in the right direction… We also appointed a ten person homeless task force. Their charter is to take a clean look at everything, especially trying to find a location outside of Malibu where we can shelter the homeless.”
I spoke with council member Uhring the day after the meeting who echoed the sentiments of concerned city officials and community members about the urgent need to clear encampments before Santa Ana wind season:
“I have not seen evidence that Sheriff Villanueva’s program to clear homeless encampments has begun, but when it does, I will join with other Malibu residents to thank him for his efforts to protect the community.”
A few days later on July 24th, Malibu City Council Member Bruce Silverstein posted the following announcement on social media:
“Malibu’s Formal Designation as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” by CalFire Provides a Legal Basis for Strict Enforcement of Malibu’s No Camping Ordinance.
As shown by the… map published by CalFire, the entirety of the City of Malibu has designated a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. There are only a handful of cities in California that share this distinction. And few, if any, other cities in California have been ravaged by wildfire as often as Malibu”.
“In the past year, there have been numerous fires in Malibu caused by transient vagrants living on public land (and trespassing on private property) in Malibu. Any one of those fires could grown into a devastating wildfire if the winds had been blowing.” Silverstein continued.
As the days and weeks inched closer to Santa Ana Wind season and with what seemed like very little movement to start the clearing process in the Santa Monica Mountains, I contacted LASD Commander John Burcher about my concerns. Burcher immediately initiated communication between myself (as an activist in my community, which is separate from my role as a journalist) and the head of LASD HOST team Lt. Geoff Deedrick, to help me gain some insight on their strategy with a particularly treacherous time of year fast approaching. Additionally, Commander Burcher assured me the HOST team had been working in the area since January.
Despite the HOST Team’s efforts in Topanga since the beginning of the year, there was still a significant uptick in vagrant fires during the first six months of 2021 causing serious concerns. It was clear additional manpower and a more aggressive approach was critical to make headway before Santa Ana winds arrived.
I met with Lt. Deedrick on July 29th in Venice and toured the area. Deedrick educated me on the HOST Teams mission, policies and procedures (in general) and with the poltically-charged, high-profile clean-up at the Boardwalk.
Upon learning the complexities surrounding the Venice efforts – and even more so in our rural area – it was clear a roundtable needed to be scheduled to connect all the local players in public safety.
On August 5th, members of LA County Fire, LASD HOST team, City officials from Malibu and Calabasas, county officials (including theL.A. County Housing Authority) and members of the community proactive in Public Safety met at Calabasas City Hall.
THE FRUITS OF LABOR
The August 5th meeting proved fruitful in many ways.
It led to expedited communication between agencies not before seen at this level in our region since the “Make our Mountains Safe Again” meeting hosted by Senator Henry Stern during the the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings in the summer of 2018.
Previous interaction between LASD HOST team and local city officials was extremely limited due to a multitude of reasons, however, since the August 5th meeting, LASD HOST communication has not only improved dramatically with respect to strategy and planning for clean-ups, it has also been the catalyst inspiring collaborations between local officials, agencies and activists in the area that previously did not exist. An important factor in navigating this extremely challenging issue plaguing L.A. County for years.
HOST’s presence in the area also inspired a swift clean-up by State Parks working with the City of Malibu to clean up encampments in the civic center area that has been plagues by encampment fires. The HOST Team performed outreach at the Lagoon on July 7th.
At the end of August, I was notified of the clean-up and contacted Captain Darell Readyhoff, Superindent at State Parks, “The debris cleanup under the SR1 bridge at the Malibu Lagoon State Beach on August 26th was a joint effort between State Park Peace Officers and State Park Maintenance employees. Additionally, the City of Malibu was instrumental in connecting us with the shopping center management who allowed us to place a 40 yard dumpster on their property for the morning. We completed the work by noon”.
PROTOCOL, PROCEDURE & PROGRESS
On September 2nd, almost three months after his homeless clean-up efforts in Venice began, Sheriff Villanueva hosted a town hall at Duke’s Malibu to address the community’s concern re: homeless encampments, crime and wildfires.
Villanueva, no stranger to wildfire issues in our area, has been very proactive in our coastal community when it comes to emergency preparedness, which is why prioritizing the Venice sweep caught many in LASD patrolled contract cities, by surprise.
In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire burned 97,000-acres, destroying more than 1,500 structures and responsible for three deaths, then Sheriff-elect Villanueva, took the initiative and made the trip from his La Habra Heights home to the Zuma Beach command post to talk to the troops.
A few weeks later and only days after his swearing in, Villanueva’s first town hall as Sheriff of L.A. County was in Malibu to address Woolsey Fire victims and their concerns. The Sheriff also came for a second town hall a few months later, in May of 2019, to discuss the emergency procedures and preparedness for upcoming fire season.
In October 2019, Sheriff Villanueva, after being made aware of the failures to post emergency updates during not one, but two significant fires occurring in the first wildfire season after the Woolsey Fire, the Sheriff ordered an overhaul of communication at the station – specifically social media and how the station distributes emergency communication. The result has been a robust social media presence tagging local media to ensure public safety alerts have wide distribution.
At the August 5th meeting organized by myself and Lt. Deedrick addressing homeless encampments and wildfire dangers, Deedrick estimated 90 days to clear out most, if not all, homeless encampments in the Santa Monica Mountains, just in time for Santa Ana wind season.
“It seems a little ambitious” I told KTLA News covering the meeting, “but they have a pretty solid team and I’m going to be hopeful”.
On Monday, October 25th, the LASD HOST Team made their final posting notifying of the impending clean-up of the encampments in the Zuma lagoon area. What began as approximately 18 encampments, is now down to four after the HOST Team performed outreach efforts.
The final clean-up is scheduled for November 9th, ironically the third anniversary of the Woolsey Fire, effectively meeting the 90 day deadline set at the August 5th meeting.
As skeptical as I was that they would meet their deadline, it looks like I met my match.
As the LASD HOST Team makes big moves around LA County superhero-style, we can rest easy knowing they not only successfully completed their mission to clear our canyons… they literally moved mountains to keep our community safe.
Follow LASD HOST Team as they clean-up LA COUNTY. Twitter: @lasdhost