Sometime around mid-October, a 68-year-old homeless man died of congestive heart failure in his tent on the sand within eyeshot of the Ventura Harbor.

A fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico before Hurricane Katrina hit, this man saved a woman’s life by tying her to the boat — and they both survived. The woman lost her home and everything she owned, and somehow, they made their way to Ventura, where he hoped he could find work as a fisherman. While the exact date he arrived in Ventura is unknown, locals who got to know him believe that he was homeless near the harbor for at least two years.

But after the death of William, whose last name has been omitted to protect his privacy, those who tried to help him were devastated by the loss, raising even more concern over ways that Ventura County is helping — and not helping — its homeless population.

One local woman who asked to remain anonymous said that she and her son came to like William very much, and saw him deteriorating due to cancer and congestive heart failure.

“He came to realize he needed a more secure environment because he was no longer able to protect himself and his dog living in a tent on the beach,” she said.  

At that point, William wanted desperately to find a place to live. 

“It broke our hearts that despite his pleas, he was denied housing because he was deemed irresponsible,” she said. “No individual should bear this blame. Our system of helping the homeless has no adequate provision to help those who are seriously ill and have beloved pets they cannot be separated from. We must revise our system. He was a fisherman. He was a friend. We are grieving his loss.”

William’s plight was of great concern to Ventura resident Cindy Piester, a psychiatric technician for 33 years and a lifetime activist who has tried to change many of our societal ills for the better.

During Piester’s 33-year career, she worked for two years at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a psychiatric hospital for both developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients that closed in 1997. 

“I was working to try to keep the place open as many of the stories the public were told as a reason for closing it under Pete Wilson did not hold up under investigation,” Piester said. “I was concernedthat the mentally ill would be abandoned and dying on our streets, homeless. This is happening as well as the criminalization of the mentally ill. So many of our homeless are in such a situation because they are mentally ill and are not being provided for in today’s world.  The same goes for our veterans.”

Piester did not know William directly. She learned about his struggles after forming a small group of local activists who met twice a week in her home, where the discussion led to this homeless man.

“Our group had been prepared to do everything we could to help William and were involved in this without having actually met him,” Piester said. 

The group intended to do a portrait of William to display in an art show, and planned to make a documentary about him in order to raise awareness, “and perhaps get him well-deserved sympathy that would lead to permanent housing,” Piester said. 

“William died before this could happen and we were all in grief,” she said. 

Looking back on this most recent experience, “I would say that there is always hope for people in dire need,” Piester said. “I would also say that the will to help rests with us all and our elected officials.”

Ventura County 2017 Homeless Count

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as part of its requirements since 2005 for local jurisdictions to continue to receive Continuum of Care funding for homeless persons, has asked local jurisdictional applicants to conduct a “one-day point-in-time” unsheltered and sheltered homeless count every other year during the last 10 days of January.

Since 2012, however, HUD requires a sheltered count every year, which includes emergency shelters and transitional housing programs, including safe havens. In addition, HUD requires that local jurisdictional applicants gather data for the following subpopulations: chronically homeless individuals, chronically homeless families, persons with mental illness, persons with HIV/AIDS, substance users, veterans, victims of domestic violence, unaccompanied youth under age 18, and youth ages 18 to 24.

Homeless memorial off the Santa Clara River mouth in Ventura.

“The point-in-time count catches people who are in a shelter or out on the street as we walk through the city on one day in January,” explained Sue Brinkmeyer of Oxnard, interim director of Lift Up Your Voice to End Homelessness.

“I have often heard it said that the real number is two to six times higher,” Brinkmeyer said. “We don’t count, of course, those who are temporarily sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a motel, even though they lack a home of their own.”

The point-in-time count “only covers those who wanted to be counted,” said Judy Alexandre of Ventura, board president of Step Up Ventura, a nonprofit geared to meet the trauma and attachment needs of children up to age 5 and their parents who are experiencing homelessness.

The county’s continuum of care program uses a formula “that says there’s anywhere from three to 10 times more people than are actually counted,” Alexandre said.

According to the Ventura County 2017 Homeless Count and Subpopulation Survey, there were 1,152 adults and children who were homeless during the point-in-time count, down 119 people, or a 9.4 percent decrease over last year at 1,271. The 2017 count represents the lowest total count since 2007, the first year an official count was conducted.

Oxnard and Ventura continue to account for approximately two-thirds (66.1 percent) of the 1,152 homeless persons (461 persons representing 40.0 percent and 301 persons representing 26.1 percent, respectively). Simi Valley had the third-highest population of homeless (105 persons representing 9.1 percent), followed by Thousand Oaks (102 persons representing 8.8 percent). Of the 1,152 homeless adults and children counted in 2017, 664 or 57.6 percent were unsheltered and 488 or 42.4 percent were sheltered, whereas 61.1 percent were unsheltered and 38.9 percent sheltered in 2016.

Are local homeless programs working?

According to Brinkmeyer, programs that provide people with a home and with the level of service needed to address each client’s issues are working.

“Look, for example, at The City Center or River Haven, or the county’s Rapid Re-Housing Program, all of which give people a home and intensive, individualized case management,” Brinkmeyer noted. 

Most programs, however, may merely “put a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said. 

“You cannot expect to deal with issues of mental health or drug or alcohol addiction when people have no steady place to sleep at night and don’t know where they will get their next meal or how they will get to their doctor appointment or to the many different agencies whose help they need,” Brinkmeyer said. “You cannot expect people to succeed in a job interview or hold down a job when they have no place to get a good night’s sleep or take a shower or keep clean clothes. Housing first is the answer to homelessness, as communities across the nation are demonstrating.” 

Preventing early deaths of the area’s homeless

Homeless advocates (Right to left) Kathy Powell, Sue Brinkmeyer, Rheina Rogart and Debora Field serve meals at the regular Monday lunch with Catholic Charities on North Ventura Avenue in Ventura.

The vast majority of those who are homeless in Ventura County are from Ventura County. 

“They grew up here, went to high school here, were last employed here — they are here because this is their home, it is their community,” Brinkmeyer said. 

She noted that each year, the staff at Family to Family conduct a survey asking the 150 or so people who come for free lunches each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, where they grew up, went to school, last worked. 

“Over 80 percent of them say they have been in Ventura County more than 20 years,” Brinkmeyer said. 

She believes that we must come together as a community to create a continuum of care so that people can get off the streets. 

“We need a year-round emergency shelter, housing that people who get $900 to $1,200 per month can afford, and a sufficient number of case managers to get people the help they need and quickly move from homelessness back into housing stability and, where appropriate, employment and self-sufficiency,” Brinkmeyer said.

What are we doing wrong?

We are treating homelessness as something acceptable instead of treating it as an emergency, Brinkmeyer said.

“All of us in government at the city and county level and all of us who live and work here must come together to deal with this,” she said.   

For instance, when there’s a fire that leaves a family that was previously housed without a place to stay, we come together and find them shelter and services. 

“However, when a person ages out of foster care or gets out of jail or loses everything because of a mental illness or an addiction to drugs or alcohol and ends up on the street with no place to sleep and no way to get back into housing, we turn a blind eye,” Brinkmeyer said. “We see them as a nuisance that should live in someone else’s neighborhood, as someone else’s problem.” 

Instead, we need to see each case of homelessness as an emergency that calls for quick action to stabilize the individual who is in crisis, Brinkmeyer advised.

“Just as we have the Red Cross that responds when there is a natural disaster, we need to see each case of homelessness as a life disaster and have a robust and ready system that is ready to step in and help that individual get back into housing and back on a path to wholeness and health,” she said.

We also need a dedicated source of funding to provide the services, and we need dedicated housing available. 

“Perhaps this will mean we need to allow innovative, out-of-the-box solutions — tiny homes, repurposed shipping containers, cement domes, RV or trailer communities with trash, showers, laundry and restroom facilities on site,” Brinkmeyer said. “As it is now, we are expecting people to get well while living out on the streets, and that is never going to happen; and so we have people who grew up in our neighborhoods but fall into homelessness and have no way to get out, and so they languish there until they die.”

Additional barriers

Kathy Powell, outreach chair of Unitarian Universalist Church’s Lift Up Your Voice, a nonprofit division of homeless advocacy, noted some barriers in the homeless programs currently running.

For one, the majority of them need the person to be able to be looking for work as a quick goal.

“Many of our folks outside are disabled or not able to work for other reasons,” Powell said.

For instance, a few years back Powell assisted a disabled woman in a wheelchair. She was being asked to leave the place where she had resided for 10 years so that they could remodel.

“Trying to find an apartment on her housing certificate was almost impossible so our church paid for her things to be in storage, we assembled a team and moved her out,” Powell recalled.

“I phoned all of the shelters and no one was equipped to allow her to stay,” she said. “For the most part she stayed with family and friends while we continued to look for a place, which took months. This took an immense toll on her physically. When she finally got into a place something happened from the stress and she became very ill and lost her memory. She is a young woman and the climb back has been steep.” 

Powell noted that we have about a 2 percent vacancy rate for apartments in Ventura and most of those will not take housing certificates, such as Section 8, as part of the rent even though it is guaranteed income.

“With such a low vacancy rate landlords are able to pick and choose who they want in their apartments,” Powell said. “Also, to get a housing certificate you will usually have a 6- to 8 -year long wait.”

Additionally, many homeless people who are physically disabled or have developmental disabilities, or both.

“It is overwhelming for them to try and get to places to get all of the documentation together while they are homeless,” Powell said. “If they were in one place with services it would be so much easier and more efficient for them. I would imagine it would be much more cost-effective also since many of them are on an ever-revolving jail/hospital cycle that is extremely cost-prohibitive.”

“After the fires our team was doing our weekly park outreach. We came upon some homeless people we have known for a long time and asked them if they were using the Red Cross shelter to stay to get out of the smoke and wind. One of the women looking all clean and fresh told us she was using the showers and getting a meal there. She told us she didn’t want to sleep there at night because she didn’t want to take the bed of someone who had really lost their home in the fire, she is homeless and her astute, amazing compassion took my breath away,” said Powell.

One of the men on Powell’s Outreach Team was born and raised here in Ventura. He was in what used to be called the special-needs class.

“So many of the homeless people here in Ventura were in classes with him back then; they are in their 50s,” she said. “Many of our people were born and raised here. I once did a survey, and over 50 percent of the people I talked to (100) had lived here more than 50 percent of their lives. We are now beginning to see the younger people with autism entering the homeless population.”

As this new growing group of people begins to come of age, many families are ill-equipped to keep them housed into adulthood.

“This will add a new twist on things,” Powell said. “I have tended to quite a few young people like this and it breaks my heart. My son has autism and is in his 20s so I am especially aware and moved by this ever-growing situation.” 

In other challenges, most of our shelters are faith-based.

“This is wonderful for the people it will work for, but if someone doesn’t see this as a viable option for themselves they will not go,” Powell said.

Additionally, many of our homeless people have mental health issues, and if they didn’t have them when they became homeless, the issues that surround people as they live outside will break many people.

Also, most places require an individual to be clean and sober to enter, and for some people that is an issue.

“If you do decide to go into a rehab most of the rehabs are about $700 per month,” Powell said. “If you qualify for General Relief it pays about $340, and how would a homeless person be able to make up the difference? Many of the faith-based rehabs, which may be free, do not allow people to be on psych meds, so many of our people shouldn’t go to those since it would be dangerous for them.” 

Imagine for a moment

Think about trying to sleep and rats are crawling around you. Imagine finding a hiding place out of the way, cold, on dirt with rocks under you, or a slab, then a flashlight appears in your eyes and you are told you aren’t allowed to be there.

“Now you have to move,” Powell said. “Imagine being under some blankets outside and you need to go to the restroom. Where would you go? Do you think homeless people want to go to the bathroom outside in the cold, in the dark stumbling around?”

All of this adds to the stress on people as they are outdoors, she said.

“It is illegal to go to the bathroom outside and they know this. All dignity is stripped away and people view it as them not caring. The truth is, they don’t have a choice many times,” Powell said.

She believes we desperately need a full-time, year-round shelter.

“I feel that just constantly moving people from place to place in the city isn’t solving the problem,” Powell said. “If we could get people into a shelter, allow them to rest, breathe easy for a few weeks, come up for air, then we could begin to work on their issues, what do they need, where would they fit.”

Keeping the bar low for entry would also help.

“National models have shown, as we employ ‘Housing First’ as the model, we have greater successes,” Powell added. “It is too difficult for people to be scrambling everywhere to jump all the hurdles when they don’t even have a place to go to the restroom at night or clean clothes or a place to shower. We need to stabilize them and then go forward.”

Brinkmeyer added that the homeless count is going down, thanks to very dedicated people that have been working for years to get as many off the streets as they can.

“And they have succeeded when they have been able to find inexpensive rentals, landlords who would accept Section 8 vouchers, public housing or housing dedicated for veterans or the mentally ill,” Brinkmeyer said. 

She believes the numbers will begin to go up again, however, as we have used up the supply of such units. 

“The situation truly is desperate and we must not turn away,” Brinkmeyer further emphasized. “We must find creative ways to build additional housing for those who have fallen on hard times.” 

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura will hold an interfaith memorial service at the Gazebo in Ventura’s Plaza Park at 3 p.m. on Jan. 27 to remember, by name, at least 57 people who have died homeless in Ventura County in the past year. For more information, call 805-644-3898. For more information about Lift Up Your Voice to End Homelessness, call 805-644-3898, extension 100; or visit http://www.uuventura.org/social-justice/lift-up-your-voice/