The face of homelessness
Ventura County’s forgotten share their stories
By David Michael Courtland 12/16/2010
In contrast to the sort of clothing people might expect to see a homeless man wearing during the chill weather of the Christmas season, Kenny Smith is easy to spot by his trademark sunglasses, baggy shorts and sandals. The 53-year-old Navy veteran can often be seen panhandling, with a cardboard box for donations, in Plaza Park and other places about Oxnard’s downtown area.
“I’ve been homeless for 11 and a half years,” Smith says matter-of-factly as he describes how he came to be one of Oxnard’s chronically destitute following his discharge from the Navy, when he settled in Port Hueneme and Oxnard to work in local restaurants and bars.
In 1985, he suffered a spinal injury when a large can fell on him as he was stocking supplies. He returned to work after taking some time off to recover, but the chronic pain left him battling depression as well. By 1998, he was unable to work any more and living on worker’s compensation.
“I was living in a roach motel, spending most of my time reading and watching TV when the property got sold for development,” Smith recalls. “I was supposed to get relocation services, but instead, they took me to court and evicted me. I had my first dog with me at the time. I couldn’t find a place that would accept both of us.”
Over the years, Smith has had several dogs he likens to service dogs. “They’re not official ones; I couldn’t find out how to get official ones,” he says. His dogs help him cope with his depression and anxiety. “They help me with my stress. I’m not alone,” he explains.
But struggling to keep himself and his dogs housed in a series of RVs and vans on his minimal income — he draws Social Security for his disabilities — has proven to be as stressful as his medical problems, as one vehicle after another has been towed for lack of registration or other traffic violations.
One day in 2008 in a Ventura park, the parolee who was sharing space in the van he and Smith had bought together savagely attacked Smith’s dogs, Sid and Putt-Putt, with a baseball bat, badly injuring one and scaring off the other, who was later recovered by a woman who witnessed the incident.
But Smith, who wasn’t there when the dogs were taken by animal control officials, was unable to convince them he was the owner of the unlicensed animals. Putt-Putt was given to new owners, and Smith suspects Sid was humanely destroyed because of his injuries. Another adopted companion apparently ran away. He is still searching for that dog, whom he named Altoid.
On Nov. 29, Smith lost another round in his ongoing battle to keep his latest vehicle from being towed. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Smith returned from visiting family in Orange County to find his unregistered van had been ticketed several times.
“I got three expired-tag tickets. After the third ticket, I moved it to a private parking lot,” where a sympathetic attendant warned him “to only park it there at night because the owner’s a real ass and he’d have it towed.” So Smith relocated the van to a public parking lot during the day, but started getting tickets again when the van’s starter wore out and he was unable to move the van.
“So this police officer decided he was going to make sure it got towed,” said Smith, who, like many homeless, is convinced certain police officers like to harass them. “He was smiling as they hauled it away.”
Like many homeless in Oxnard, Smith’s daily routine is centered on places where he can get meals, showers and other assistance, such as the Ventura County Rescue Mission or Community Action of Ventura. But Smith’s situation is complicated by outbursts — he blames “stress-related Tourette’s Syndrome” — that have gotten him barred from some of those places, forcing him to search for other resources.
“I don’t mind my lifestyle, but I’m getting tired of it, so I’m making efforts to get off the streets and get into a place,” says Smith, who is applying for residency in one of the local motels that have been converted to housing for the homeless. But he enjoys meeting people through his panhandling.
“A lot of people treat me like I’m a ghost — I’ll say hello, they’ll treat me like I don’t even exist,” says Smith.
“Sometimes, I’ll get mad and I’ll tell them straight out, ‘Stop treating me like a ghost.’ But every day I make new friends.”
Thompson’s hard road
Many of Oxnard’s homeless are ex-convicts who were released in Ventura County after completing their sentences, to be supervised by parole officers assigned to the Oxnard office. Some, like Doug Thompson, successfully started their lives over after prison, only to be knocked for a loop by the flagging economy.
“They just dump you somewhere with no resources. Your chances of survival are slim,” Thompson says of state corrections officials, who wouldn’t let him return to his former home in Monterey County after he completed a prison sentence for domestic violence in 2005. (He had brandished a handgun at his wife after finding her in bed with another man.)
“They said, ‘You’re going to Ventura County,’ and drove me to the Greyhound station. I spent my first night sleeping in some weeds near the (Oxnard National Guard) armory, because the parole office is near there.”
A friend of Thompson, who had also been paroled to Ventura County, referred him to Freedom House, one of a number of Ventura County residences for parolees making the transition back to society. Thompson quickly found work in construction and, after two and a half years, was supervising a crew. But then in 2007, the economy began to sour.
“They laid off the whole office — 54 employees. I was one of the last to go,” said Thompson. Soon, he was unable to pay the rent on his apartment. “The storage yard auctioned off my tools for back rent. I was unable to pay the storage fees.”
For a time, Thompson got temp jobs through Labor Ready, living hand to mouth because of the drop in pay scale from $18 an hour to minimum wage.
“That became a cycle. Each day I had to keep working or I’d miss something, food or gas,” says Thompson. “When it came to pass my tags were due, the catalytic converter burned out. They impounded my truck, and so here I am on the streets.”
Thompson has followed the routine of most down-and-out job seekers, spending hours at the Employment Development Department’s career centers, searching and applying for jobs as well as taking advantage of any programs that might make him more marketable, such as Goodwill Industries’ Job Club, which helps job seekers polish skills like designing a résumé and interviewing techniques.
“I went through the Job Club at Community Action, but with prison in your background, it makes it difficult to get employed,” says Thompson. “But I don’t give up, I just keep trying.”
A hard knocks life
Like Thompson, Vicki Zendejas has made the rounds of various transitional living programs after spending time on the street following an encounter with law enforcement — in her case, the Ventura Police Department.
“I’ve been homeless for three years. I became homeless when I went to jail for an 11550,” says Zendejas, using legal shorthand for being under the influence of a controlled substance. “I lost my children, my foster kids, my housing. It was my first time ever (on the street).”
For two years, Zendejas lived in a tent in Ojai near a bike trail, and then returned to Ventura to join the Salvation Army’s Transitional Living Program. After completing the six months of drug rehabilitation and counseling, she moved on to River Haven, a two-year transitional living program that provides shelter for General Relief recipients. She has been there for seven months, applying for jobs as the program requires but having no luck.
“I can’t seem to find a job. We have to turn in 20 applications a week,” says Zendejas, who suspects age discrimination is keeping her unemployed despite a résumé that shows experience with St. John’s Hospital, the City of Oxnard and Vons supermarkets. “I turned in 80 and never got called.”
Zendejas keeps herself busy by volunteering at other Ventura-based organizations that help the homeless, like the Turning Point Foundation, Project Understanding and Catholic Charities. She also volunteers at the county’s Healthcare for the Homeless clinics in both Ventura and Oxnard. She regularly sees her 13- and 15-year-old children, who live with their older sister, and continues to look for work.
“They don’t hire me, especially when I tell them I’ve been in jail. I know I am a fast worker and learner, but they want young people,” says Zendejas. “I hope I never have to do this again. If it weren’t for River Haven, I’d be on the street.”
Aches and pains
Loren Morgan finally got tired of being on the street — and in jail. For the last 30 days, he has been a resident at the Ventura County Rescue Mission, where his probation officer arranged for him to go, after an early release instead of finishing his sentence for grand theft. Like Smith, Morgan’s life on the street began as a consequence of overwhelming medical expenses.
“Basically, I tried out for pro football and got hurt,” explains Morgan, a truck driver who played for the semi-pro Los Angeles Wolves and Ventura County Cardinals before getting invited to try out for an NFL team. But after nine spinal surgeries, both his football and trucking careers were over. “My wife had a stroke. I had to raise our kids, and our income ran out.”
In 2006, Morgan and his son found themselves living in a tent in a canyon near Newbury Park, folding up their camp early each morning before people arrived for their work day.
“It’s hard. It’s very, very tough. You do whatever you have to to survive,” says Morgan. So in 2008, when they learned temporary overnight shelter was available at the Rescue Mission in Oxnard, they went there to get out of the elements. But unlike Smith, Morgan found panhandling was a hassle.
“We were flying signs (holding up signs to passing traffic that asked for money), we were doing pretty good, then Oxnard PD hit and really harassed us, basically told us to go to Ventura,” recalls Morgan. That brought him and his son to the emergency winter shelter in Ventura’s National Guard armory.
“I was desperate. Somebody told me if I could boost stuff from stores, they’d be my fence,” said Morgan, who by now was using street drugs to kill his chronic back pain. “But it became physically and mentally exhausting — you wonder, ‘Am I going to get busted tonight?’ I started getting sloppy and making mistakes.”
After a shoplifting bust at the Target in Pacific View Mall in August, Morgan found himself facing six months in jail. He had completed half that sentence when his probation officer convinced a judge and the district attorney’s office to grant him an early release, if he joined a transitional living program.
Now clean and sober after three months in jail, where he also got badly needed medical treatment, Morgan jumped at the chance to get his life back on track. He has been in the Rescue Mission’s 90-day rehabilitation program for a month and sees a therapist once a week for counseling.
He plans not only to go back to school but to work to help other homeless, starting by applying for one of the open seats on the City of Oxnard’s Homeless and Housing Commission.
“When I was at the (Ventura National Guard) armory last year, I saw these families staying there; I felt really bad,” says Morgan. “It kind of pushed a button in me to do whatever I could for homeless people.”
Morgan spoke to the Board of Supervisors earlier this year when the board was preparing to vote on funding for year-round shelters, and now that he’s feeling much better, plans to continue that effort. He credits his probation officer with going beyond the call of duty to help him.
“She’s a godsend, she saved my life,” says Morgan.
Morgan’s son, who remains homeless, is seen at the mission with his dad from time to time.
The third annual Homeless Persons Memorial Service will be held in Plaza Park in Downtown Ventura on Dec. 19, at 3 p.m. This year it will be followed by a silent clergy public witness event. The names of at least thirteen residents who have died homeless since the first of the year will be read at several local congregations throughout Ventura.
For more on the Housing and Homelessness in Ventura County, join in on a panel discussion at Cal Lutheran during Homeless Awareness week, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., in the Roth Nelson Room. The Center for Equality and Justice and the Center for Community Service will present a panel discussion involving several homelessness experts and activists from Ventura County and beyond. The panel will focus on local and regional homelessness, but will also address issues at the state and national levels.
The event is co-sponsored by the Center for Equality and Justice and the Community Service Center. For more information, contact Sam Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 493-3693.