Ventura has a “homeless” problem. We aren’t the only ones, but while there’s passionate debate about why, our beach community has become home to the largest homeless population in the county (although just barely ahead of Oxnard, which used to have the largest number).

What’s worse, the problem seems to be growing. At least in visibility. Part of that visibility, ironically, is because, as a community, we are taking a more active role in confronting the challenge. For years, encampments in the Ventura riverbottom or other out-of-the-way places were quietly tolerated for lack of alternatives. But it’s dawned on pretty much everyone that squatter camps are not a “solution.” In fact, they’ve turned into a really big problem and our efforts to dislodge them are at least temporarily pushing some of the problem elsewhere in our community.

It would be ideal if we suddenly had much better solutions. Yet we can’t wave a magic wand and make the problem go away. We can’t afford to build housing for everyone. We can’t lock everyone up. We can’t run everyone out of town. In fact, the “homeless” problem is really a misnomer. People without homes run a wide gamut. They include families whose breadwinners are out of work, hardened criminal predators, tragically damaged people with mental illnesses or crippling addictions, and young people acting out on some misguided impulses.

But the absence of a single panacea should not discourage us from redoubling our efforts to tackle the multiple challenges that get lumped together as the “homeless problem.”
I say redoubling because it is amazing how many people are already part of the solution. As never before, city government, county government, social service organizations, churches, businesses and caring individuals are coming together around a strategy that makes sense because it recognizes that this is a challenge we all have to work on together to solve.

Here are just a few of the efforts going forward:    

• A coordinated initiative to eliminate illegal camps in the Ventura riverbottom is already producing results. Even if those results are initially uncomfortable, getting people out of the river is better for everyone.    

• A Safe and Clean Public Places thrust has reduced criminal and antisocial behavior in areas like the Promenade and Plaza Park through focused police presence and active intervention by social service agencies providing help to those who want help.    

• The Homeless 2 Home project, spearheaded by the Salvation Army, Turning Point Foundation and Project Understanding, is serving 150 homeless clients and has placed 52 of them in permanent housing.  

• The originally controversial Safe Sleep program is quietly and successfully providing short-term accommodation for people “down on their luck” by letting about 20 carefully screened families and individuals stay in their cars in church parking lots that provide access to bathrooms and targeted help to get them back in jobs and housing.    

• The Downtown Ventura Organization is discreetly raising funds to help individuals or families stranded in Ventura to afford gas money or bus tickets back to their homes.      

• The Kingdom Center (a converted motel supported by more than 20 local churches) and River Haven (the small homeless community of “dome homes” run by the Turning Point Foundation) are helping motivated people turn their lives around.

There are many more worthwhile projects and initiatives taking place. Some have been working for years; others are brand-new. What’s most encouraging is the increasing understanding that the “solution” is not “either/or” (typically compassion or crackdown) but “both/and.” As a community, we don’t have to choose between either a big heart or a tough crackdown. We can agree on a strategy that is both compassionate about human need and intolerant of criminal and antisocial behaviors, and unhealthy as well as unsightly conditions.

The next step is broadening our partnerships and deepening our commitment across the community. While it would be nice to have “someone else” solve this problem, no single entity can bear that load. Sure, it’s easy for citizens to demand that government fix the problem. It’s tempting for the city to pass the buck to the county. Many expect churches and nonprofits to bear the load. But if we want change, waiting for others to change is not the answer.

Mayor Mike Tracy and the City Council have marshaled city government resources and commitment. The most important thing any citizen can do is not to give to panhandlers but direct generosity to organizations actively making a real difference in people’s lives. You can also lend your vocal support to government, business, nonprofit and spiritual efforts to work on this problem together. Finally, if you aren’t already part of the solution, you can become directly involved. If we want success on such a big challenge, we’ve all got to step up.  

Rick Cole is the city manager of Ventura.