Facing homelessness in Ventura County

Facing homelessness in Ventura County

The never-ending story

By Michael Sullivan 06/12/2014

 

Christina Cabral, 27, works as a case manager for the Homeless2Home Project through the Salvation Army in Ventura. (The Homeless2Home Project focuses on rapid permanent rehousing for the homeless.) Though she first began her job in 2011, within a year, she became despondent. She started feeling discouraged that she wasn’t able to help others to the extent she wanted to, that many of the people she had spent so much time working with just didn’t want help or just didn’t seem to care. So she quit; she needed some time for reflection. Within a couple of months, however, she found herself volunteering to do the job she once got paid to do. It didn’t take long for Salvation Army to rehire her, eventually moving her back into her position as a case manager in street outreach.

 


Photo by: T Christian Gapen


“I returned because I was hopeful,” she said. “I still am.”


Since October, you can find Cabral, among several other case managers, doing street outreach with the homeless. Street outreach begins with an introduction — she will introduce herself to a person sitting on a bench or under a tree, a person, to all appearances, who seems to be living without a home. If the person is willing to work with her, she does intake and collects information that will help her find appropriate housing through housing specialist Amy Luoma with the Homeless2Home Project. From there, it could take a few weeks or, more often, several months before suitable housing is available. But that’s where things can become difficult.


It’s not just the fact that housing remains scarce, but her clients may disappear. Some of them find housing, such as motel rooms or with friends, or some may end up in jail. Further, though, even when she is able to get them into housing, sometimes what was supposed to be permanent turns into temporary. After all, certain people, more so the chronically homeless than those who just came into homelessness, have been living without structure for months, years and, for some, their whole lives.


In working with Cabral on this story, it became obvious that the reality of homelessness is volatile, constantly changing, though Cabral admits, not all people living without homes are the same. Some of those she has worked with say what they mean and get help while others shift and morph their stories to suit, or even excuse, their situations; and almost nothing is predictable or runs smoothly. The reality is that a person who lives without a home is just slightly different that what others consider “normal.” Those living without homes are just more exposed than the average Joe so it’s easy to judge them for bad habits and behavior when the truth is, many in homes are doing the same but behind closed doors.


To find the solution to homelessness, we first must understand those who are living without homes for any length of time. For the second part of our series “The long way home,” we spoke with several in various states of homelessness. During the course of these interviews, it became clear that the stigma of homelessness remains alive and well. Some who have come out of homelessness and are now moving forward with their lives refused to talk about their experiences. But for those who did share their stories, it is obvious that the story of homelessness is never-ending and complicated. We appreciate those who came forward to give us insight into their worlds. These are their stories.


Charles Harman, of Ventura: chronically homeless
Charles Harman, 62, pictured on the cover, stays in Ventura, hanging out in Plaza Park in downtown Ventura by day and sleeping outside the nearby post office at night. According to Cabral, he has been chronically homeless for more than five years, though he said during one interview that he had been so since 1979. Harman lives with severe back pain but he said he wouldn’t get surgery unless he had a place to stay. He had been living in a motor home up until last year, when he would park it in city lots in downtown Ventura, but he lost it for reasons not disclosed and wound up in the winter warming shelter, then Plaza Park. Harman is among many who deal with the harsh reality of living on the street, including a recent confrontation with another homeless person who had beaten him. Harman is still in the process of working with case managers on finding a home.


David Guthrie of Ojai: displaced
David Guthrie, 60, was born and raised in Stockton, California, one of eight boys. He didn’t speak much about his childhood, flashing forward to his late teens, when he dropped out of high school and joined the military; he volunteered for Vietnam. He was 18 when he entered, 20 when he got out, but it was three years of his life that would permanently change his future.


“I’ve seen what happens to people in the ghetto,” Guthrie said, talking about his hometown of Stockton and his choice to go to Vietnam. “They are still sitting on the porch, guys my age, guys that never left the ’hood. I just wanted to get the hell out.”


But the cost of going to Vietnam was much higher than he could have realized. Over those three years, he was exposed to Agent Orange and tremendous loss. He was too young to understand the impact that Vietnam would have on him before he made the decision to volunteer. Though he didn’t agree with the war, he joined because he felt it was the only option.


After his three-year stint was over, he went back to Stockton, where he became a butcher. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that he wasn’t cut out for such a career path, so he did odd jobs in construction and handyman work. But his real passion was music; it still is today. He spent much of his life doing odd jobs and living with some success as a musician/singer-songwriter. In the mid-1990s, however, Vietnam took its first tangible toll — he lost a kidney to cancer. Kidney cancer is on the list of diseases associated with Agent Orange. Two decades later (last March), he was diagnosed with liver cancer, with nine tumors on his liver, another disease associated with Agent Orange.


In the midst of his struggles with cancer and other ailments, he happened to meet a few women … women, he loved and who loved him back. Though his relationships were somewhat short-lived, their legacies live on. He has three children, two of whom he took full custody of. He lives with his oldest, David Guthrie Jr., 25, who acts as his caretaker, and his youngest, his daughter, who is 10. They live together in a granny flat in Ojai, but this is a new home for them, having moved in the last month. Last December, they became homeless.

 


Photo by: T Christian Gapen
Despite many challenges, including his fight with cancer,
David Guthrie of Ojai has found overwhelming support
that led him to a new place after losing his home late last year.


For the Guthries, homelessness was a foreign situation. David Sr. had always lived in a home. When he left Stockton in the 1970s, he moved to Santa Barbara and lived there and in Carpinteria until the late 1990s, when he settled in Ojai. He got involved with Ojai Valley Sprouts and fell in love with the small town. He loved the schools and thought it was an ideal place to raise children. David Sr. admits he was always living on the fringe, paycheck to paycheck, odd job to odd job. Three and a half years ago, the Guthries had to move out of their home and quickly found another place. Apparently, though, a place found in haste may have issues. In this situation, it was his landlord. They lived in a house on a property that had other smaller homes on it and the landlord would allow others to park their RVs on the property as well. While the Guthries paid their rent, the landlord was squandering it away on a meth business unbeknown to them. David Sr. said the property — not his home — was raided 16 times. Eventually, code enforcement came to inspect his home and found black mold and condemned the house. That’s when they found themselves looking to various people and agencies for help, including the homeless services program offered by the County of Ventura and the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.


Over the course of five months, the Guthries were living in a hotel during the week, thanks to an agreement that allowed them to pay reduced rates; and on the weekend, they stayed on another friend’s property. David Sr. and Jr. both worked diligently with everyone, excessively appreciative of the outpouring of support and generosity. It was perhaps a bit of good karma and fortune that led them to their place today.


In working with the various agencies, they were led to the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program. David Sr. found that when he went to apply for the program, two of the veterans on the list before him had just died and he and his family were moved to the top of the list. Within a very short time, a home became available; and just a week or so before this interview, they found permanent housing.


In their new home, the Guthries have begun organic farming, something they believe will help David Sr. in his fight with liver cancer. David Sr. says healthy eating plus a somewhat controversial cancer treatment — light therapy — are helping improve his condition. The Guthries’ story is a familiar one, as the 2008 recession took its toll on many families living paycheck to paycheck. But David Sr. spoke of the commitment he made to making sure his family didn’t go without a home for long.


“The whole deal, if you don’t take it 200 percent, you ain’t going to get no help, ain’t no one going to do nothing for ya’, you gotta be out there every day,” he said. “We help people; that’s why we got help.”


Monty Monkress of Ventura: lifelong homeless
Monty Monkress, 49, is one of the happiest guys you will ever meet. Or maybe it just looks that way. Monkress shares his life story with a smile and snicker at the funny parts, and with displays of sincere sadness at the harder times. In the last couple of years, Monkress has had brain surgery for hydrocephalus — water on the brain. Surgeons placed a shunt in his head to redirect the fluid to another part of the body where it will be properly absorbed. He said that he didn’t have the condition as a child but he said the doctors told him it would have helped him if that surgery had taken place when he was an infant. Monkress said with a smile, his hydrocephalus was the reason he had such a big head.


Monkress talked about his childhood growing up in Baldwin, California, and being in special ed., that he always had problems keeping up with all the schoolwork. In high school he found himself in juvenile hall after trashing his physical education teacher’s office with liquid soap and pencil shavings after a disagreement. The administration claimed Monkress was trying to set a fire with the shavings. At age 18, his family moved to midtown Ventura. By that time he had dropped out of school and started smoking pot and drinking. He said that he regretted drinking and smoking pot, that they were the worst decisions of his life.


In Ventura, he struggled. When he was in his late teens, early 20s, he found himself sleeping in his parents’ van until it was repossessed. From that point, he wandered toward Sanjon Road and met a guy who was homeless and stayed with him, sleeping on a couch in the encampment near the railroad tracks. That’s when he learned how to pick up trash for recycling to make money. He recalled teenagers throwing rocks at him through the nearby fence. It was one of the more humiliating times in his life.


“That made me feel pretty low,” he said. “I started throwing rocks back at them. But then the kids came and tore up this guy’s camp. I told my mom about it, she said, ‘That’s just them picking on the homeless.’ ”

 


Photo by: Michael Sullivan
Monty Monkress has been homeless in Ventura since his late teens,
early 20s, and is currently working toward getting into permanent housing.


Occasionally, Monkress would luck out with a decent job, with stints at Pierpont Inn, various motels and then in the oil fields. In the oil fields, he slipped a disk in his back and he ended up on crutches. Shortly after that, he broke his leg and hurt his ankle. During this time — he was still in his 20s — he lived on unemployment for a while, admitting he cheated on his unemployment, something he said he learned from his father. When he recovered from his injuries, he got a temporary part-time job at the fair. At that point, he lost his unemployment with the new job. A few years later, broke and despondent, he was arrested for stealing merchandise outside of a Radio Shack in Carpinteria. He was released a few months later. It didn’t take long before he ended up in prison, this time for residential burglary at a motel, for trying to steal vodka out of a room. He spent many years in and out of prison, 10 years in total, on seven different occasions.


After his prison time, he had a friend who ran a motel next door to a sobering center in Santa Barbara. He got a job at the center despite his past criminal record, which he says human resources never checked. That was when he started doing crystal meth. He was in his early 30s. He moved in with his friend from the motel, and the meth addiction really took off. Because he was still on parole, his parole agents had come to check on him and found that he was intoxicated and in possession of meth. After a short time in jail, he lost his job and car and was on felony probation. He went back to pushing a shopping cart and recycling to make a little money. His friend, Glen, from the motel, however, had received back payment for his disability for his stint in Vietnam and they took off to Ohio.


Monkress and Glen lived on Glen’s disability and Monkress’ food stamps. They were also drinking regularly and doing meth and pain pills occasionally. In 2008, Monkress and Glen decided they wanted to visit a friend in Santa Barbara. So they began their way back to California, first by car and then by train. It was this trip that would change both their lives. When Monkress and his friend finally arrived in Santa Barbara, they both realized they had left his friend’s diabetes medication at the train station. His friend later started vomiting blood and died shortly after in a hospital. During the interview, Monkress’s grief was obvious.


In Santa Barbara, Monkress stayed with the woman they had intended to meet, but he recalled a potentially violent situation when her gangster boyfriend and his comrades were going to kill him — these gangsters remembered him from his work at the sobering center and thought he was a snitch. He was able to escape and made his way back to Ventura.


During this interview, Monkress had been staying at C Street Family Plan in Oxnard. He had originally come to the Salvation Army looking for help a month earlier — he was drunk and Cabral walked with him to the alcohol and drug program on Main Street. He was accepted into the program and went to a facility in Tarzana for detox. After his treatment, he was dropped off at C Street. Within a week of the interview, after a month staying at the C Street facility, he walked out, saying he had a disagreement with one of the other men staying there, and went back to flying a sign for donations. A few days later, the police picked him up for public intoxication and placed him in jail. On May 29, he was released from jail and placed at First to Serve Inc. Outreach Ministries in Los Angeles. According to Cabral, he was still at the facility in Los Angeles by this writer’s deadline.


Lisa and David of Simi Valley/Ventura: in and out of homelessness, three years
Lisa, 51, and David, 49, met three years ago at the Samaritan Center in Simi Valley. They had both been in long-term relationships that coincidentally had come to the breaking point and ended at the same time, even the same exact day. And they’ve been together ever since, sometimes with shelter, much of the time without. They are currently staying at a motel. A couple of weeks ago they were using shrubbery at Surfers Point in Ventura to take cover and sleep. When the VCReporter talked to them, they had just passed their tuberculosis tests and were qualified to enter a program for immediate housing, though it is unclear if they have enrolled in any homeless service program for housing. Lisa and David, who asked that their last names not be used, have unique tales of their lives, so much so that most people would consider them unbelievable; but once the details come out, it becomes difficult to doubt.


Lisa calls Simi Valley her home. She grew up without a father and lost her mother to cancer just recently. She has a 25-year-old daughter in Simi Valley with whom she is in contact, but it’s apparent Lisa is uncomfortable with her situation — and perhaps connecting with her daughter regularly may be too emotional. Her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen for some time, came looking for her when Lisa’s mother died. That was a week before this interview.


Lisa’s life wasn’t always this hard. She said that for 13 years, she worked in aeronautics as a microwave technician at a company in Simi Valley as well as Chatsworth. Because she was born with a medical condition where her bone marrow doesn’t produce the cells to properly nourish her bones, her bones become brittle, even disintegrate. That’s why, in her mid-40s, she had to have her hips replaced. She walks with crutches and often has to default to her wheelchair to get around. She couldn’t work with the pain and went on disability. Within a short time frame, her relationship fizzled out — she noted the relationship had been over long before — and that’s when the next and hardest phase of her life began: homelessness.


“We didn’t know anything about homelessness and we really sucked at it,” she said, speaking about David’s and her situation. When asked how someone succeeds at homelessness, she laughed and said, “Write a book about it: Homelessness for Dummies.”


Lisa says she suffers from anxiety and depression, something she takes prescriptions for, but on the street she has had her medications stolen from her. She says she wants to work by training service animals. For the time being, though, she is in a state of flux with her partner, David. While three years in and out of homelessness may seem like a long time to live without the certainty of a roof over one’s head, for David, this is still a new experience.

 


Photo by: Michael Sullivan
David, who used to work for Amgen,
and Lisa, who has a background in aeronautics,
both of Simi Valley, have been in and out
homelessness for three years.


David, the oldest of nine children, has always been a hard worker. Though he never graduated from high school, he found himself with unique opportunities.


It was the early 1980s when he applied to a newly founded pharmaceutical company in Thousand Oaks, a little place called Amgen. He applied to be a dishwasher, cleaning beakers and other lab equipment. Because the company was fledgling at that point, he said, no one had checked his educational background and the fact that he didn’t have a high school diploma, which would become an issue down the road.


He worked his way from the proverbial kitchen doing dishes to quality control, inspecting chemicals that would make their way to life-saving drugs. One such drug was Neupogen. When asked what Neupogen was, he was on point, accurately describing the drug that became patented in 1991, a drug that kick-starts the bone marrow into creating white blood cells for chemotherapy patients, who often see a depletion during treatment. He spoke of George Rathmann, founder of the company, as anyone would of a boss. He also spoke of other drugs, such as Epogen, which fosters red blood cell creation, and tossed around other terms that probably only lab techs would know.


After a few years in the company, his colleagues intervened during an audit and helped him become certified in quality control. He worked there for 15 years until his mother became sick and he took a leave of absence. When Amgen went corporate, he said, things changed. After he took his leave, he never returned.


For his next job, he went to work as a swamper at AAMCO Transmissions and Total Car Care. A swamper keeps the shop clean and disposes of oil, etc. He started tinkering with cars, something he had always done on his own cars and his mom’s. At one point, his boss took notice of his skills and offered him a job as a mechanic. He stayed there for 15 years, mentioning he was one of the only employees to stay there that long. He didn’t talk much about why that job ended, but he said that when his relationship ended, that’s when he became homeless, leaving everything behind.


Both David and Lisa commented that the services offered in Ventura County, especially at the Armory and Oxnard One-Stop Clinic, which offers multiple services at one place, have been beneficial to their recovery.


Trinity, new to Ventura County: transitional
Trinity, 19, met with homeless advocates at a Denny’s in Camarillo in early May. She said she had stayed the night on the beach in Ventura a couple of nights before, and the night before she had slept at a nearby motel with a friend she had met at The Kingdom Center Oxnard. She had left The Kingdom Center days prior due to certain claims she made that remain unfounded at this point. But her story became more convoluted and confusing when it came to tracing the trail that led her to that Denny’s in Camarillo.


Trinity said that she was born in Michigan, one of 15 children. Her mother practiced voodoo and various sexual acts were performed on her at an early age, which is why child protective services placed her in foster care. At 12, she was adopted but then was raped by her foster brothers and promptly taken away. At 13, she was staying at a foster home with other children to be adopted, when she met a guy she had seen around her city who forced her into sex slavery, making threats that he would hurt her family if she wouldn’t comply. Unfortunately, the more she spoke about her story, the less sincere she seemed to be.


As she spoke about the initiation into sex slavery, being gang-raped by six men, she spoke with a smile as she doodled on her arm. She didn’t tear up; her heavy eyeliner remained unblemished. She recalled going to school every day and that her guardians at the foster home never caught on that she was out of the home six nights a week, sleeping with or, rather, being raped by 18 to 60 men a night. At 16, she said, she was kidnapped — she was told to make her family believe she had run away — and forced to have sex with men at parties and various other events. She said there were even some celebrities she had sex with although she couldn’t remember their names. She said she gave birth to a baby boy in a bathtub in a hotel in New York and she never got to hold him. She didn’t wince at all when explaining that part of her story.


Trinity went on, saying that the last family she stayed with in Oregon didn’t want anything to do with her and that she had nowhere to go. She had come to The Kingdom Center from the Dream Center Network in Los Angeles, a Christian organization that does homeless outreach. Before Dream Center, she was with the family in Oregon. She came to the family in Oregon via a longtime friend from her hometown in Michigan — her friend’s wife had family in Oregon. Her longtime friend in Michigan had rescued her from her sex-slave captors. She said she wasn’t in contact with her family, mainly her sisters, in Michigan and she was hiding from her captors. Her Facebook photos and her family’s Facebook photos told a different story.


For more than a year of posts on Facebook, Trinity appeared well-adjusted, happy, praising God and Jesus. Her only job experience listed is in storytelling at a church. On her Google Plus page, she spoke about wanting to be a singer. Her heartbreaking story and the story revealed by Facebook, even her own emotions, were contradictory. Many local homeless advocates took her at her word and went out of their way to provide services a battered woman would need, but those particular services may have been unnecessary.


In Ventura County, she received an outpouring of help, first at The Kingdom Center, then Oxnard One-Stop Clinic, followed with referral services from Salvation Army, access to the food pantry at Project Understanding, assistance at TAY Tunnel in Oxnard and a hotel voucher from a local church, plus numerous hours of time from homeless advocates. Though it was recommended, she refused to be examined by mental health professionals. Further, the family that Trinity said had abandoned actually her put her on a plane immediately once local homeless advocates had contacted them.


In working with the homeless, such stories can lead homeless advocates on a hunt for services, costing a lot of time and energy — and the time may be well-spent, getting people on the right track. On the other hand, if the stories aren’t true, it can lead to difficulty in providing the sorts of services that adequately meet the true need. Trinity, whose name was changed to protect her identity, is still with the family in Oregon, a month after this interview took place.

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Comments

Nice work! You did a great job of showing there are many different faces to our homeless population. Real people, real problems, and an issue that will never be solved by just handing out some spare change and walking away.

posted by Fool In The Rain on 6/12/14 @ 11:18 a.m.
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