Authorities on Tuesday morning began tearing down a long-standing homeless encampment in Thousand Oaks next to Highway 23.
Residents of the encampment on California Department of Transportation property had vacated the site by the time the clearing began about 7:40 a.m.
Flyers posted Thursday by Caltrans had ordered the people living in the encampment to leave by 7 a.m. Tuesday. The site included tents and a few makeshift structures.
Other, smaller nearby encampments on the property will also be torn down over the next several days, officials said. The homeless sites essentially stretch from Janss Road to Paige Lane along the highway.
Thousand Oaks Police Chief Jeremy Paris said the encampments have been there for at least 10 years. He said at last count, about 12 people lived at the main encampment.
Caltrans spokesman Eric Menjivar said the agency, which ordered the clearing, is responsible for ensuring the safety of the state’s transportation network for all residents, including protecting and maintaining highway infrastructure.
"In situations where people experiencing homelessness are sheltering along the state right of way, Caltrans assesses the encampment site for immediate threats to safety or essential infrastructure," he said in a statement.
Threats may include encampments that physically block traffic or pathways and put people in the encampments, the traveling public and workers at risk of imminent danger. Other threats include the probability of wildfires from fire or explosives, he said. Menjivar did not specify what threats or safety concerns applied at the site.
California Highway Patrol officers, supported by Ventura County Sheriff's deputies, who are contracted to police Thousand Oaks, were on scene as the encampment was torn down and cleared out by work crews.
Ryan Ayers, spokesman for the CHP's Moorpark office, said the clearing out was the culmination of a 2 ½-year project in association with Caltrans, the city of Thousand Oaks and the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.
The homeless residents were referred on multiple occasions to such organizations as Lutheran Social Services and Harbor House for assistance, he said. Both nonprofits assist people who are facing homelessness.
"You have a vulnerable population that we're trying to move to better establishments both for their safety and also the neighbors," Ayers said.
Ingrid Hardy, Thousand Oaks assistant city manager, said that "from my perspective, we've done a good job in terms of trying to get people connected to services and in some cases, housing."
Paris said the population of the main encampment was about half of what it was a year ago. He attributed the shrinking population to law enforcement and others letting them know for months that it was going to be cleared out.
"This has been a long time coming," he said.
According to Ventura County's 2020 homeless count conducted in February, Thousand Oaks’ homeless population rose from 152 in 2020 to 210 this year, the survey found.
Dichele Harris, area director of Lutheran Social Services, said her biggest concern is "Where exactly are these individuals going to go? There's no homeless shelter in the Thousand Oaks area."
She said her organization offers food, showers and laundry services, but no overnight shelter.
"I don't think people realize how much anxiety it causes for those living on the street, in terms of where are you going to sleep every night," she said.
Thousand Oaks has plans to build the city's first homeless housing facility, converting a Quality Inn and Suites at 12 Conejo Blvd. into permanent housing for about 77 homeless people.
But it's still waiting to hear from the state whether its request for up to $28 million in Project Homekey funding will be granted. Without the funding, the project can't go forward.
Krista Fields, a Thousand Oaks resident who has lived near the encampment for years, said she welcomed the site finally being torn down.
"We've seen an increase in crime in the immediate area," said Fields, 45, who works for the American Cancer Society. "I'm happy, but it's a mixed blessing because where are they going to go?"
Another resident of the neighborhood, Larry Doyle, said he wondered why it took so long to start clearing the encampment.
"They've never done anything until now," Doyle, 72, said. "And there's some really nasty people over there. And they're not going to leave. They're just going to move and start staying in the hills around here."
Only Caltrans had the authority to order the encampment cleare, not local law enforcement, Paris said.
Mike Harris covers the East County cities of Moorpark, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, as well as transportation countywide. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0323.
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This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Thousand Oaks homeless encampment residents cleared out