Dire straits for Ventura's homeless
Housing, services as issues of contention after clearing of river bottoms
By Chris O'Neal 09/12/2013
Several of Ventura’s homeless residents marched on City Hall in an effort to raise awareness of their residential needs this past week, an issue made more pressing by the recent clearing of the Santa Clara River bottom.
Brenda Lee Davis and husband Corey Davis have been homeless for 23 years. After giving up their home in Meiners Oaks, the Davises moved into the Ventura River bottom and have been on the move ever since.
“We want to work,” said Brenda. “Don’t segregate us. Don’t try to push us out. Make way for us to live together in harmony.”
Along with her and her husband was Christopher Curl, who heads a ministry for the homeless in Ventura. Curl has been homeless for five years.
Among their contentions with the city, where to legally sleep is of major concern.
“Please don’t give us tickets that we can’t pay for,” said Curl, who has received parking tickets for sleeping in his vehicle. “If we have a job, we get fired because we get put in jail for not being able to pay our tickets.”
Safe Sleep Ventura allows the use of vehicles for shelter for up to 90 days in designated lots, but some local churches are increasingly concerned about its limitations.
“The Safe Sleep Program does provide opportunities for a very small percentage of people who are sleeping in their cars,” said the Rev. Jan Christian of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura. “It meets the need of a tiny fraction of the city of Ventura, but the need is much greater.”
Christian hopes to meet with other local organizations in an effort to persuade the city to open new lots to expand the Safe Sleep Program and to lessen the rigorous requirements for those applying. Currently, the program allows up to five vehicles per designated lot, of which there are two in the city.
“It works to everyone’s benefit if we can get a little bit creative and figure it out,” said Christian. “It costs so much more money to be responding to people who are homeless than to keep them in their homes.”
In the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 3, off Harbor Boulevard near Olivas Links golf course, more than 500 CLU students were bused onto the entrance of the Santa Clara River bottom, the spot that previously upward of 80 of Ventura’s homeless called home. The students’ task was to clear the multiple campsites of debris, varying from discarded blankets to albums of photographs left behind.
“This isn’t just Ventura’s issue, but an issue across the board of where do we house folks,” said Salvation Army’s Director of Social Services Rob Orth. “A percentage of those folks have zero income and some significant barriers when it comes to getting income, whether its drug, alcohol, mental health history or all of the above.”
Orth sites the Housing First model as a means by which to place people who are homeless into homes before reaching the streets, one that has been successful elsewhere and could be beneficial to the city. Housing First, known locally as Homeless2Home, places a homeless person into an apartment or room directly as opposed to transitioning through a shelter first. Each person is assigned a case manager to assure the transition is successful. The Homeless2Home project, in collaboration with the Salvation Army, Turning Point Foundation and Project Understanding, serves up to 150 homeless.
Amy Luoma, housing specialist with the Homeless2Home project, said that she believes that the initiative can be monumentally successful, when landlords cooperate.
“The biggest barrier, hands down, is inventory. There is a definite lack of inventory in the city of Ventura,” said Luoma. “We need to figure out ways to restructure our current inventory and get creative in terms of how we house these individuals who desperately need our community’s support.”
“It’s much easier to work with someone once they’re housed than when they are in the street,” said Orth, echoing Christian’s sentiment, “but finding a place to put them is tough. We work with those who are willing to change.”
The Santa Clara River bottom project area is now clear, with only a smattering of tents remaining, a small percentage of those that were once called them home. From the many camps came just shy of 60 tons of waste, which cost close to $7,000 to dispose of.
“As new resources come to bear for the Homeless2Home program, we need to make sure there’s a high level of coordination between the city and private donors,” said Ventura’s Community Services Manager Peter Brown. “We’re not just bridging the gap this month or this year; we’re doing it month after month and year after year.”
Brown believes that an endowment is needed for programs like Homeless2Home to succeed in the long term.
“Right now, we’re in the mosh pit of trying to figure out the long-term problems,” said Brown. “Our success would be leaving this legacy of an endowment.”
Last Friday, the Davises and Curl returned to City Hall with signs and a message. The trio at City Hall was not a part of the Santa Clara River camp and has been nomadic throughout the city.
“There’s no way we’re going to end homelessness without community engagement,” said Luoma. “Homelessness impacts our entire community; I would hope that it reaches everyone on a human level.”