Until Vicky Elliott acquired a camper truck to sleep in, homelessness felt like a bottomless pit she’d never dig herself out of.

“It’s a great step up from pushing a shopping cart,” she says.

Elliott was chronically homeless for the better part of her decade out on the streets of Ventura. But in the past few years, she’s slowly been trying to turn her life around for a better future. In the last year and a half, she and her boyfriend, Greg, managed to secure their truck. Together, they try to make ends meet as best they can.

Greg, who holds down a job as a roadside sign holder for AT&T, and Elliott, who earns Social Security benefits on disability, have hopes of someday buying their own motor home, but struggle with the cost. Even finding a more stable spot to park their camper exceeds what they can currently afford. When they can afford it, they look for temporary lodging in motels, which is their current situation for this week.

For the time being, the couple quietly parks overnight on streets and lots where a blind eye is turned. It’s a gamble they take with potential violations of traffic laws, but so far, they’ve received no citations — a stark contrast to the nearly $6,500 in loitering fines they received in the two years prior to receiving a vehicle of their own.

Elliott is an example of the type of homeless person Ventura officials are keeping in mind for a proposed pilot program allowing them a limited amount of legal, overnight parking in designated lots across the city; the person looking to emerge from that proverbial homeless pit.

By allowing a place to congregate off the street, authorities hope the temporary move will somehow bridge the gap between Ventura’s growing homeless problem and its quest for a permanent homeless shelter. The City of Ventura currently has an ordinance that limits people to sleeping in their cars, four hours at a time, and has given citations on a complaint-driven basis.

If the Ventura City Council approves the plan at its July 13 meeting, the local homeless prevention task force will begin scouting parking lots across Ventura for safe places to sleep in cars during certain hours of the night. The city has already fronted $22,000 for the project.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” says Elliott of the plan.

Others, particularly those affiliated with an area downtown merchants group, have expressed disapproval of the Safe Sleep program, opposed to the idea of letting homeless people park their cars in public, Downtown Ventura lots. Rob Edwards, executive director of the Downtown Ventura Organization (DVO), submitted a letter to the City Council late last month, asking them to limit the project to private lots only, for several reasons concerning sanitation and safety.

“Sleeping in vehicles on public streets or public parking lots is unsafe; recent, highly publicized attacks on homeless individuals are a serious concern,” reads the June 30 letter. “Additionally, there is no public restroom access overnight anywhere in the city and serious public health issues will arise as a result. Creating a plan to mitigate these problems will merely divert limited police and social service resources.”

“The problem with it is, it’s not an ideal solution,” says DVO chairman Dave Armstrong. “It’s trying to manage the problem. It’s very difficult to manage.”

Armstrong used the City of Camarillo as an example, which last month banned homeless people from sleeping in their cars.

“We did have at least one experience where a camper emptied its sanitary system into a planter of a shopping center,” recalls Camarillo City Manager Jerry Bankston. He said there were also too many reports of homeless people parking their cars at the city’s train station, in spaces designed for passengers and commuters.

On Tuesday, an online petition also began circulating, opposing Ventura’s sleeping-in-cars program. The majority belief, according to comments posted by petition signers, is that Ventura’s public parking lots will become an overcrowded campground for homeless people, teeming with broken-down cars and outbursts of violence, if the plan passes.

Peter Brown, the City of Ventura’s social services manager, says this is an exaggeration, partly due to gross misinformation about Ventura’s homeless community. The city’s plan, he said, would be limited to a select number of homeless — about 15 people — who must complete a thorough application and screening process.

He classified the local homeless population into three general groups. There are the transient panhandlers, he said, resistant to public outreach, who migrate up and down the coast; the chronically homeless, mainstays of Ventura, who can sometimes be averse to getting services for unemployment or alcoholism; and then there are those who may have become recently homeless due to the economy, looking to actively get back on track quickly, who are the program’s target demographic.

“I would think what we’re looking at are people who are not necessarily ‘lifestyle homeless’ who want to be homeless, but who are working to return to self-sufficiency,” Brown said. He summarizes the plan as “a very narrow program for people who can prove they are capable to return to be housed …. We’re not imposing something on the community that every parking space” will be used, he added.

Brown also stated that it’s not been determined yet just how many lots, public or private, would be the most appropriate for the Safe Sleep pilot. The best locations, according to Brown and Ventura Police Lt. Mark Stadler, are parking lots in either Ventura’s residentially-limited industrial district, or at any number of churches throughout the city that have expressed interest in hosting the program.

Neal Andrews, the City’s Council’s most ardent homeless prevention advocate, elaborated.

“We’re hoping that either a church will offer their parking lot, or a private business, in a more remote location, will do so,” he said. “At the most, on any given lot, there’d be maybe 15 to 20 cars. That’s all that’d be permitted.”

Jan Christian says the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura, where she is pastor, is on board.

“It’s something to move forward for people who have been able to hold onto their cars,” she said.

Andrews also responded to worries from the DVO.

“Someone left them with the impression, apparently, that we’d be using the downtown parking lots, which has actually never been proposed,” Andrews said. “It’s just unfortunate that the DVO reacted prematurely, I think, and with only limited information.

“There’s no doubt there are people involved with the DVO whose voices are listened to on the council, including me,” Andrews continued. “I think they’re a very important organization.”

Brown and Ventura’s Social Services Task Force, which he advises, fashioned the pilot plan after similar programs in Santa Barbara and Eugene, Ore. Santa Barbara’s program, started about seven years ago, provides about a dozen parking lots, five spaces at a time, and is administered by a local nonprofit. The program does well despite some criticisms to the contrary, according to Santa Barbara Police Deputy Chief Frank Mannix.

“They ensure the participants have a driver’s license, their vehicles are registered and properly insured,” he said. “We have had some complaints from neighbors we investigate, but they mostly have to do with the program being unpopular in the immediate neighborhoods. In terms of generating a lot of crime, the program does not do that.”

In Ventura, the number of citations administered to homeless people sleeping in their cars has seemingly been low. According to Lt. Stadler, over the 17-month period from Jan. 1, 2008, to May 31 of this year, a mere 10 tickets were issued.

“Yes, we’ve seen an increase of people sleeping in their cars, but our stance is, we always warn people first,” he said.

It was only after the program was green-lighted by the City Council for development in early May, said Stadler, when two of those 10 citations were handed out. He believes it caused part of the public backlash against the pilot program, leading people to believe that police enforcement would be either diminished or rescinded completely.

Bankston, Camarillo city manager, said that what can’t work in his city doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily work in another.

“With Ventura, Oxnard, they have their own parks and areas that may be better suited that they could provide for. We simply do not,” he said. “We don’t own any parkland that would in any way accommodate overnight parking. Ours was more to address what we consider to be the immediate health and safety issues.”

Noting that, Brown says Ventura must be careful to keep the pilot program small because there’s a chance homeless people, through word of mouth, may migrate from places like Camarillo up to Ventura, hoping they can park their cars and sleep anywhere.

“Those are all concerns,” he said. “But we think we can find (people) who will work successfully … and return to self-sufficiency, and we see this as a program helping them with that.”

It’s still unknown if the city council is ready to finalize the project on Monday.

“The details of the program haven’t been worked out,” Andrews said.

Ventura Mayor Christy Weir, however, believes the council has enough information and feedback to launch the program.

“I think we’ll be ready to make some decision,” she said.

Brown said he welcomes feedback on the project and encourages people to voice their opinion at Monday’s meeting.

“It’s a complicated and potentially treacherous road we’re going down here,” he said. “We have to balance our concerns for the safety and health of folks living out of their cars, with concerns we’re going to hear from some people.”   

The City Council meets to discuss the Safe Sleep program on Monday, July 13, at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber of Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St.

paul@vcreporter.com