Crime

Knife-Wielding Incident at Van Damme State Park Shines Light on the Complexities of Using State Parks for Homeless Housing

Matthew James Gibson [Mugshot from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Booking Logs]

On Tuesday night, law enforcement responded to Van Damme State Beach on the Mendocino County coast after receiving reports a male was armed with a knife making “stabbing motions” and directing threatening gestures towards a woman in the campground. California State Parks Chief Ranger Loren Rex confirmed 34-year-old Fort Bragg man Matthew James Gibson was arrested and booked as a result of the incident. 

As per the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Booking Logs, Gibson stands accused of brandishing a deadly weapon and threats to commit a crime resulting in death or great bodily injury.

Gibson’s behaviors Tuesday night were not out-of-the-ordinary, Ranger Rex explained. State Parks Officers, Mendocino County Sheriff’s deputies, and Fort Bragg Police Department Officers have “dealt with him repeatedly over the last couple months,” Ranger Rex told us. Law enforcement has found that Gibson has a “tendency to have weapons with him” and make threatening movements and gestures that make nearby people feel afraid.

Van Damme State Park campground [Picture from WikiCommons]

Tuesday night’s incident specifically was between Gibson and a female friend that originated in the campground of Van Damme State Park. As a result of the incident, the female party chose to press criminal charges. 

Gibson’s pattern of behavior leaves responding “officers on edge,” Ranger Rex said, and he can go from having “really good days where he’s nice to other days when he’s aggressive.” Knowing his volatile behavior patterns, two state parks officers accompanied him to the Mendocino County jail that night “just in case,” Ranger Rex explained.

Gibson, Ranger Rex explained, has been staying at Mendocino County coast state park campgrounds for many months where guests are only allowed to stay at one for thirty consecutive days. 

A map of all the state parks in the Mendocino County Area [Screenshot of a map from California State Parks]

This long-term utilization of State Parks campsites can go on ad-infinitum, as long as the guest vacates after thirty days and does not return to the next calendar year. Ranger Rex said Gibson has maxed out his ability to stay at several local state parks and has caused multiple incidents during his stay.

State Park campgrounds are public and open to all, Ranger Rex said, and “we don’t screen our clientele.” As long as guests “follow the rules,” many state parks have actually become an impromptu, short-term option to house the homeless.

This intersection of recreation and homeless services can make State Parks’ responsibilities difficult. Staff is required to keep the grounds safe and friendly for families and children, while at the same time providing equal access to the grounds for all guests. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” Ranger Rex explained.

Historically, some municipalities actually looked to Mendocino County State Parks as a formal solution to housing their homeless. Approximately twenty years ago, Ranger Rex told us the City of Fort Bragg made arrangements to pay for the town’s homeless to live at the MacKerricher State Park that never came to fruition. 

Gibson is not the only guest of Mendocino County state parks that fit this profile. Ranger Rex told us the story of a man in another State Park near Mendocino that suffers from mental illness who “punches into the wind and makes loud noises” at anyone that stumbles upon him “building driftwood houses on the beach.” This behavior “freaks people out, especially tourists,” Ranger Rex said. Law enforcement has responded to multiple calls regarding this individual by reporting parties who did not know these gestures were manifestations of mental illness, not the physical threats of a dangerous person. Ranger Rex said his officers have an obligation to make sure “the public is safe” but also work to also respect his “rights as a citizen.”

With due respect to the potential victims of the circumstances described, it must be stated that the charges contained in the booking log have not been proven in a court of law. In accordance with the legal principle of the presumption of innocence, any individual described should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

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