Earthcomb, Heal the Ocean, Sheriff’s Office partner in cleanup of camp along San Jose Creek
Former homeless man Andrew Velikanje launched his nonprofit Earthcomb Monday, cleaning up what he considers the “holy grail” of encampments.
He is working long days to tidy up an area of the San Jose creekbed behind the Schwan Brothers Excavating Contractors yard in Goleta. He hopes to enlist the help of homeless individuals, offering them $20 per hour.
“After being homeless for a while, you get really used to just being ignored and shunned and exiled, not respected in any capacity. And I would imagine that it really affects self-image and self-respect,” Mr. Velikanje told the News-Press.
“So my goal would be to find the ones who might have a little glimmer of hope and give them enough work that they could get off the street,” he said. “I would think that in doing something like this … that they’ll start feeling better about themselves and potentially begin the transition.”
The crew he lined up for Monday morning backed out, except his friend Tim, who is not homeless.
Mr. Velikanje plans for more cleanups in the future. The current site was chosen from a list of more than 20 abandoned encampments identified by a Heal the Ocean survey.
Nonprofit Heal the Ocean has long been a supporter of Mr. Velikanje. The organization, alongside the Hands Across Montecito project, helped him out of homelessness a year ago.
Even while he struggled with homelessness, Mr. Velikanje was devoted to tidying up Santa Barbara County’s natural resources. He has disposed of approximately nine tons of trash so far.
He has been representing Earthcomb as an individual, but he designated Monday as the official launch of his nonprofit. He has a tax ID and is filing his business name.
So now he is ready to lead volunteers and expand Earthcomb.
“Andrew’s been doing this for years on his own. I’m glad it’s finally picked up,” his friend Tim said. “He’s been bugging me for years to come out wherever he’s at, whether it be a lake or a beach, and help out.”
The cleanup process isn’t easy. The group can’t go into an encampment unannounced and bag up people’s old belongings.
Deputy Ben Sandu with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office consults with Mr. Velikanje, and he ensures the site is abandoned before cleanup begins.
“Getting everybody involved and on the same page was probably the hardest challenge,” Deputy Sandu said. “But it’s community policing at its core. You have the property owners involved; you have Heal the Ocean with an interest in cleaning up the environment and Andrew, who is doing this for his own reasons.”
About a year ago, the property owners called the Sheriff’s Office to report the illegal encampment.
The Schwan Brothers had been aware of the encampment for years but became nervous after nearby fires and more activity during the pandemic, said Jason Schwan, son of one of the owners.
They gave the inhabitants “several weeks” to move out, Deputy Sandu said. But they had lived there for a long time and left the camp cluttered and disheveled.
The Schwan Brothers donated rollaway dumpsters for the cleanup, saving Mr. Velikanje money, and allowed the group access to private property.
Other groups donated supplies, such as gloves, shovels and trash bags.
The items left behind were not unusual for an encampment, Mr. Velikanje and Deputy Sandu said. The former residents decorated with vases, artwork and rugs.
Mr. Velikanje said it feels “morbid” to clean up people’s old home.
He remembers what it’s like to live in an encampment, but he struggles with the mess and trash some leave.
“The camp is right on the San Jose Creek, and this just goes straight to the ocean. So when we have the next big rains … When this creek starts flowing, that stuff is going straight to the ocean,” he said.
Furniture, mattresses and trash are spilling into a now dry creek. The encampment was high on Heal the Ocean’s list for its potential to pollute the ocean.
Deputy Sandu found coals, charred wood and propane bottles in the encampment’s former living room. Fire marshals look for clues such as these to determine if a camp is dangerous.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will vote on the Encampment Resolution Strategy today during its weekly meeting.
Implementation includes the addition of a full-time coordinator and nearly $1.48 million federal 2021 American Rescue Plan Act funds for the cleanup of 15 encampments in year one.
The meeting will be streamed live at countyofsb.org/ceo/csbtv/livestream.sbc.
For more information about Earthcomb, go to earthcomb.org.