Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers conducted a cleanup of homeless camps on private and county property in the Garberville-Redway area last Tuesday, Oct. 2.
Sgt. Ken Swithenbank of the Garberville substation said that a team from the Sheriff’s Work Assistance Program (SWAP) filled a 10-yard dump truck with 2,500 lbs of material left at camps along Redwood Drive north of Redway, the Bear Canyon area just north of Garberville, and the area around the Sprowel Creek off-ramp on the south end of Garberville.
Two patrol officers and two corrections officers from the Sheriff’s office, as well as four CHP officers, supervised the operations.
The cleanup was planned in response to complaints from the property owners. Nearly all the property in question is privately owned and the remainder is part of the county right-of-way for Redwood Drive.
"We are treating this as a trespass issue," said Humboldt County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ernie Stewart, who was at the north Redway site when contacted by the Redwood Times. "It’s not our intent to make arrests... An arrest would be our last resort."
Sheriff’s deputies had contacted residents of the camps a week prior to the cleanup to let them know what was going to happen and to give them a chance to remove their belongings, Swithenbank explained.
By the time deputies returned with the SWAP team, nearly all of the occupants were gone. No arrests were made.
Advocates for the homeless were on hand while the crews were working to observe and protest the operation.
At the north Redway site, the advocates read aloud from sections of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s code relating to treatment of homeless persons, which includes sections on the removal of their property. They alleged that the officers were stealing camping equipment and survival gear needed by the camp occupants.
Some advocates have also expressed concern about the removal of private papers, such as identification and other documents needed to apply for benefits, during clean-ups.
Swithenbank said that the deputies had given the camp occupants a week’s notice before they came into the camps, explaining that they were trespassing on private property and that anything left behind would be removed by the crews.
"People are notified.... They were forewarned," Swithenbank said, adding, "I believe that 99.9 percent of what we removed was what any reasonable person would think is trash."
He estimated it had been six to eight months since the Sheriff’s office had conducted a similar operation in the area but that private parties, particularly John Casali and his Eel River Cleanup crew, had cleaned up camps in the interim.
"I’ve seen pictures," said Swithenbank. "Camps were spick and span, and then an incredible mess two days later."
Because the SWAP team had to return to Eureka at a specified time, last Tuesday’s operation did not reach every camp in the area. So far a follow-up operation has not been scheduled.
"There’s more to do, but I don’t know when we’ll get to it," Swithenbank said. "There’s still a huge mess out there."
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
1. CHP and Humboldt County Sheriff’s vehicles lined Redwood Drive just north of Redway as officers conducted a cleanup of homeless camps last Tuesday, Oct. 2.
2. A team from the Sheriff’s Work Assistance Program loads material found at homeless camps near Redway onto this 10-yard dump truck. Camp occupants were warned a week ahead of time that the cleanup would be taking place, according to Sgt. Ken Swithenbank of the Garberville Sheriff’s substation.