Rick Pearson has spent the better part of 20 years trying to assuage people’s fears about homelessness.

During Pearson’s tenure as the director of Project Understanding, the nonprofit has been one of the leading linchpins for abating homelessness, from creating supportive and emergency housing programs to the opening of food pantries.

Since 1990, he’s accomplished these with a quiet, steady reserve, preferring to stay out of the spotlight in an arena dominated by aggressive and outspoken public figures. To many people, Pearson is Project Understanding, and his diplomatic approach and easygoing, sympathetic personality are key factors in the strides Ventura County has taken in curbing a problem that seems to worsen with each passing year.

Pearson, 60, retires this week, and said this week in an interview with the Reporter that homelessness is a challenge Ventura must continually be vigilant in solving.

VCR: At the close of the 1980s, what was the homeless problem in Ventura like? Was it taking a turn for the worse, and if so, why?
Pearson: It was taking a turn for the worse mainly in the increase in the number of families that were becoming homeless. Every society has its share of people who are living on the edge because of mental illness, or drug and alcohol abuse, and so there’ve always been single people on the street. What was really increasing in the late ’80s was the number of families with children, who, because of the increase in housing costs in Ventura, it’s difficult to keep a roof over their heads.

Do you find with curbing homelessness, that it’s an important thing to not be in one’s face about it?
My experience over these two decades is that most people’s negative reactions to homelessness are based on stereotypes rather than reality. And most people, if you can help them to understand the reality of homelessness in our society, they become much more open to seeking solutions. For most people, the stereotype is a lazy bum who just doesn’t want to work. And when they understand that half of the homeless population is made up of women and children, and that of the ones who are the single males on the street, that these are issues of often mental illness and addiction that are not easily overcome, they become much more open, saying, “You’re right; these people are people who need assistance, not people who need condemnation.”

What about some of the conflicts you had a decade ago with some Ventura city officials? Was that a hard blow to you, and were they centered on some of those stereotypes?
Somewhat. It was around the fact that the city leadership at that time believed firmly in the magnet theory, and that is, “If you build it, they will come,” that if you provided any services for homeless people, homeless people from all over the West Coast would migrate to your city. And so it was really very much a philosophical difference, that they were opposed to offering any services because they were afraid that would attract people. Our position has been, and I think the statistics bear us out, that people stay in the communities where they become homeless. That in fact, for people who are homeless in the city of Ventura, the city of Ventura is their home.

For the past few years, places like the Kingdom Center or programs like the Safe Sleep pilot have had a hell of a time getting off the ground in Ventura. Yet for years, Project Understanding has had in place its transitional living center, the food pantry, SHORE (Supportive Housing Opportunities in a Residential Environment) and SARAH center. Did you experience the same kind of difficulties establishing your services, and what do you think of a lot of the recent criticism over providing these newer homeless prevention services?
There are always going to be NIMBY issues, “Not In My Back Yard.” People are often afraid of what they don’t know. They’re afraid that it will impact them negatively. I think that most of that comes down to education, but yes, we’ve had severe NIMBY issues on many of the programs and projects that we’ve tried to put into place. My experience has been that you need a combination of carrot and stick. You need to be doing the education to address people’s real concerns and real fears, and to try and say to them how your project is going to lessen those conditions of which they are afraid. But then you also have to be willing to say, in the end, this is right, this is a program or a project that’s needed in the city, and to strongly encourage the decision makers to make the right decision, even in the face of some neighbor opposition.

How do you think some of those unfair prejudices and stereotypes against the homeless community can be changed for the better, and how long do you think it could take?
I don’t think it’s something you’re ever going to completely overcome. As long as there are people in need, there are going to be people who, again, because of either a lack of understanding or legitimate concerns, are going to be opposed to projects that are going to impact them. So I think it’s always going to be an issue of education, of diplomacy, and working within the community to make things happen. Would it be nice if everybody in the city got on the same page and was in full agreement? Yes, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I don’t think that it needs to happen for us to make real strides forward in being able to provide the needed services.

Looking toward the next 20 years, what challenges will your successors face helping the homeless community?
The biggest thing is always funding — finding the money and the resources to make things happen. When it comes right down to it, the basic need in this community is for affordable housing. Yes, there need to be programs to get people out of their immediate situation of need, but if there isn’t a place where they can afford to live, that’s not going to help them to solve their immediate problem. I think that’s probably the biggest issue that we’re going to face, is to be able to build housing that families and individuals with limited financial resources are able to afford. We need to get to the point where housing is viewed as a basic right of people. We, as a society, should not be allowing people to live in their cars, to live on the street, to live in inadequate housing. And that’s a real struggle because it’s going to cost a lot of money to do that. But that doesn’t make it any less right.   

paul@vcreporter.com