I first met Dana “Dee Dee” Watkins when she came to my office late last year. Watkins, 52, a resident of the homeless encampment River Haven, had pitched an article about her recently published autobiography. She wanted her story to serve as an inspiration to others on how to make better life decisions, decisions opposite the ones she had made that had led her through a very dark and harsh life. I told her that I would read it and get back to her.

The story was hard. It was sad. It was confusing. I remember going through a series of emotions reading about her journey. She relived every moment as if she were still the same age, same maturity, having the same perception as she had while she lived each one of her experiences outlined in the book. She encapsulated her sorrow about not feeling loved by or close to her mother, her carefree recklessness as she skipped school and started doing hard drugs in her teens, her rebellious attitude as she hung out with gang members and got involved in dealing drugs. I was frustrated reading about the life her children had to live with her and when she couldn’t stop making terribly tragic decisions with drugs, she gave up her children, one by one, to foster care.

I wasn’t too keen on Watkins at first. I was puzzled by all the bad decisions she made throughout her life, the ones she continued to make regardless of the consequences, despite losing her kids, her home, even her freedom. But Watkins wasn’t what most people would consider to be normal. Perhaps it was her bipolar disorder. Maybe it was her very low self-esteem and her perception of not being loved by her mother that led her on dangerous thrill-seeking adventures with men and drugs. Possibly she did too many drugs and there was no coming back to what others would consider normalcy. Whatever the case, Watkins’ life was unusual and unique. The most interesting part was her decision to get her life together after decades of bad decisions.

Watkins came to me shortly after the VCReporter published the story about her autobiography. She wanted to do interviews with homeless people and offer a different perspective, given the decade or so she had spent on the street herself. She wrote two stories, under the header In Full View, in the news section. After she filed her last article, she disappeared for a few weeks, then a month. I contacted her mentor Paul White. He said Watkins wasn’t on the track that she once was and he was concerned. On Monday, I found out she had died in River Haven over the weekend.

Watkins is one of the many chronically homeless and mentally ill who are on the fringe of society and on the verge of dying on the streets. Over the last several years, homeless advocates in Ventura, from public agencies — city and county — to nonprofit agencies and even private businesses, including Patagonia, have been collaborating on how to help people like Watkins. One of the most successful programs for moving the homeless into permanent housing is Homeless2Home, which was started in January 2011, sponsored by the Ventura Social Services Task Force. The Salvation Army, Turning Point Foundation and Project Understanding allocate funding for staff to find homeless people who are willing to be housed, work with landlords who have vacancies throughout the county, negotiate lower rents and then provide case management to ensure the recently homeless-to-home remain stable. Thus far, 15 homeless people have been housed and are on a path to staying off the streets.

Some may consider the solution to ending homelessness to be simple — build a 24/7 homeless shelter. But shelters haven’t done very well in their mission to end homelessness. Even the federal government changed the guidelines and no longer funds such endeavors. What seems to be working, however, is direct community outreach and dignified permanent housing, rather than the warehouse atmosphere of shelters. The next big mission for the local nonprofit organizations is to determine who should be at the top of the list for housing, from the most vulnerable who, like Watkins, may be the soonest to die, to those most willing to accept help. But first we must humanize this downtrodden group and look at each person as an individual. We have to stop categorizing them strictly by their socioeconomic status if we want to actually improve the situation, for them and for us. While no concrete solution may exist to end homelessness, coming together as a community to help facilitate programs, such as Homeless2Home, that actually work is our best bet for a humane and feasible answer. 

Local homeless advocacy nonprofit organizations are looking for housing. If you know of vacancies in apartment complexes or rooms for rent that would be considered reasonable for low-income housing, contact Turning Point Foundation at 652-0000, Salvation Army Transitional Living Center at 648-4977 or Project Understanding at 652-1326.