Helping others in need is a hallmark of the holiday season, giving local charities the opportunity to serve many marginalized residents throughout Ventura County — including the homeless and low-income. This Thanksgiving, we are highlighting three special nonprofits that work year-round to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Read more about how these three charities are making a huge positive impact in the Ventura County community.
Community Action was established by Congress in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Today, there are 1,000 Community Action agencies in the country and 50 in California, and all agencies offer anti-poverty programs and are controlled by the same regulations instituted in 1965.
One of the most important tenants of the Community Action movement is to ensure that low income people have a voice in their community, said Dr. Cynder Sinclair, Executive Director of Community Action of Ventura County.
“We want to clearly understand how they see their needs and how the community can do a better job of meeting those needs,” Sinclair said.
One of the biggest myths is that people are homeless or low income because it’s their fault or their choice, she noted.
“This is a misunderstanding caused by not having walked in their shoes,” Sinclair emphasized. “Every person who is low income or homeless has his or her own story. Many are heart wrenching.”
For instance, some people who have a low income want to find a higher paying job so that they may live more comfortably and provide a better life for their family.
“With only a few exceptions, homeless individuals would like to have a roof over their head and basic amenities,” Dr. Sinclair said. “The problem for many people is that these dreams and desires are out of reach in our communities, where the average two-bedroom apartment runs $1,600 if you can even find one.” (A recent market report showed the average rent in Ventura County is now over $1,800.)
Headquartered in Oxnard, Community Action of Ventura County offers two homelessness prevention programs and one program to care for the needs of those who are actually homeless. The homelessness prevention programs help low-income families — many who are elderly or single moms with kids — stay in their home by paying their electricity bill just before or just after it gets disconnected.
Another program weatherizes the homes of low-income families around the county so that they are more energy efficient, resulting in savings of 40 percent or more on the power bill. This includes such services as attic insulation, door and window installation, energy-efficient refrigerators and light bulbs and heater installation.
“We also provide food to 150 families every week with our Community Market, which distributes food in a type of farmer’s market,” Sinclair said.
In other offerings, the Transition Center offers basic essential services to those who are homeless.
“The homeless can take a shower, wash their clothes, receive their mail, use our computers to search for jobs and housing, receive housing referrals, and attend workshops on life skills and financial literacy,” Sinclair explained.
Community Action serves a wide range of clients, yet they all have one thing in common: They have few options or opportunities because of their low income.
“People come to Community Action when they need help navigating the complex system of social service; they come when they are at the end of their rope and are afraid of losing their home; they come when they need basic humanitarian services; and they come when they are in need of food for their family,” Sinclair said.
Community Action’s homeless day center serves about 25,000 people a year, and the weekly community market food distribution program serves approximately 40,000 families. Additionally, about 3,000 people are helped through Community Action’s utility payment program and about 2,000 people are served through the weatherization program.
“It’s amazing what Community Action accomplishes with our small and tight budget,” Sinclair said. “For us to thrive, we need more volunteers, financial donations, donations of toiletries and clothing, donations of bicycles and bicycle parts for our bike repair program, help with our social media efforts and donations of time and materials for renovation of our warehouse and homeless center.”
Community Action is very important, especially in today’s times, “because we meet so many unmet needs,” she said.
“If the value of a community is determined by the way it cares for the most vulnerable, Community Action contributes significantly to the high rating of Ventura County,” Sinclair said. “While we are fortunate to have many nonprofits that meet various needs of the poor in our communities, only Community Action provides the type of service and respite needed by the most defenseless. At Community Action the poor find hope for a brighter future.”
For more information visit www.ca-vc.org or call 805-436-4000.
Ventura County Rescue Mission
Since 1972, the Ventura County Rescue Mission has provided hope through a daily emergency shelter, faith-based programs and a dedicated team of counselors, chaplains, case managers, vocational instructors and community volunteers.
“All programs are offered without cost,” said John E. Saltee, Director of Ventura County Rescue Mission and Lighthouse for Women and Children. “We take a person living on the street, man or woman, and through our programs they can become a fully functioning, productive and independent citizen. We also serve meals daily to anyone in the community in need.”
In addition to serving an average of 700 meals daily to men, women and children, “we serve a diverse group of people coming to us with a variety of needs,” Saltee said.
For instance, the men’s 10-month Life Recovery Program serves those 18 years and older who struggle with addictions.
“They come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds — some have been on the street or in jail but now realize that they need help to overcome the power of addiction,” Saltee said. “It is the same for women, yet for the women, many now have children and realize their need for life skills and parenting skills to move forward in life.”
There are many myths surrounding the homeless or low-income, he said, including that the poor have a variety of opportunities to receive help, or that they are lazy.
“Although there may be those who may fit the typical profile, many poor are working hard yet cannot climb out of poverty,” Saltee said. “One incident can change everything.”
For instance, one family living close to the Ventura Mission for the last 10 years has to relocate because the landlord has decided to change the complex to adults only.
“They have been searching for new housing. And although they have limited financial ability, their issue is not solely financial but [that] there is no housing available for them,” Saltee said.
This is a common problem within Ventura County, he emphasized.
“They are a family of six and not able to find a two-bedroom available for rent that is within their means,” Saltee said. “They will soon be out of their current apartment with nowhere to go and may find themselves homeless next month. They are employed, have paid their bills, tried to survive day-to-day financially with what they have, but because circumstances change, there are no options, and like others we see, their lives spiral downward.”
There are so many that have had to face multiple circumstances and have become mentally exhausted in their effort to get help — and “give up,” said Suzanne West, Community Relations Coordinator at the Ventura County Rescue Mission.
“Lack of affordable housing and assistance for mental health issues seem to be at the forefront of the issue,” West said. “The Mission is well known to the poor and homeless in the community and many come to us daily as we are able to offer refuge, recovery and restoration. All of this is at no cost because of the support from the community.”
The Ventura County Rescue Mission also collaborates with other agencies countywide to connect those in need with the best opportunity possible.
“We like to think of our services as giving a hand up — not just a hand out,” West said. “We have the variety of services needed to get a person to the next level of help and often it starts with simply a nutritious meal or warm bed before other help is accepted.”
At the Ventura County Rescue Mission, “we look at each of our clients one life at a time — no story is the same,” Saltee said.
“Many come from abusive childhoods, introduced to drugs and alcohol by parents and on the streets as a child,” said Saltee, noting that one client began drinking when introduced to alcohol by his mother at the age of 7.
“This, for some, is all they know,” he said. “Others began their addiction with pain killers because of an injury and are able to hide it from family members or friends for a long time, not knowing how to ask for help. The pull of addiction is strong and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome on your own.”
Homelessness is increasing, “and we need to help as many as possible,” Saltee said.
“In today’s times we have seen government funds change direction depending upon administrations in the local, state and federal level,” he said. As a nonprofit for more than 46 years, “we are able to focus on programs that have success and confront the issues of homelessness and addiction without concern to change programs according to funding.”
The current philosophy is to go from homelessness to home.
“Although this is absolutely imperative, unfortunately, there is a large volume of people who are not able to sustain housing because they do not have the skills to lead an independent life and need the opportunity to gain life skills, recover from addiction and receive vocational training,” Saltee said. “With our help they can then not only eventually get into housing but maintain their housing for the long term.”
For more information, visit www.vcrescuemission.org or call 805-487-1234.
Many people are under the assumption that all homeless neighbors are homeless by choice and do not want to change their circumstances.
“That is not always the case,” said Brandy Beesley, Executive Director of Project Understanding. “The face of the homeless person has changed over the past couple years, and in fact, a good many of the people we serve are hard-working members of the community who are up against a variety of challenges.”
It could be your neighbor, your sibling, your friend, who unfortunately suffered a medical crisis, unexpected loss of employment or a similar unfortunate event.
“Many residents are suffering from the rising costs of rent, rising costs of medical care or transportation, and have to choose between paying rent or putting groceries on the table,” Beesley said. “Project Understanding helps to bridge that gap.”
Project Understanding serves as a safety net for the most vulnerable residents within Ventura County.
“We offer a hand-up versus a hand-out approach, helping individuals who desire to change their life situation for the better,” Beesley said.
Project Understanding’s programs include homeless assistance and prevention, a food pantry, supportive housing, safe housing services for homeless pregnant women, and tutoring services for children in need of additional educational assistance.
“We serve people from all ethnic backgrounds, all ages, and all have unique circumstances that have put them in an unfortunate situation,” Beesley said.
Project Understanding has various locations throughout the county. Its food pantry, Homeless to Home program and administrative offices are located at 2734 Johnson Drive, Suite E, in Ventura.
The nonprofit is the only organization within Ventura County that facilitates the Homeless to Home program, Beesley noted, which focuses on building relationships and supporting chronically homeless individuals who have tried traditional means of acquiring housing, yet remain homeless.
“Our street outreach manager finds appropriate housing for clients including an assessment of an individual’s overall health, financial options, personal goals, and case management,” Beesley explained.
At the closing of the 2017 calendar year, Project Understanding had helped 125 homeless individuals through the Homeless to Home Program. The food pantry served approximately 74,000 meals, providing groceries and fresh food to over 6,500 individuals. Tender Life, a maternity home, housed 12 pregnant mothers and welcomed six babies; and Project Understanding’s tutoring sites served approximately 350 students per month.
“Over the past year, we have experienced a 250 percent increase in the number of individuals served,” Beesley said.
“Our first and foremost priority is to ensure that we have the financial resources to continue to provide services and increase our capacity to support the growing numbers of individuals needing assistance,” Beesley said. “None of this is possible without the financial support of the community, and of course our many volunteers.”
Whether it’s bad luck or bad choices that brings people to Project Understanding, “we try to help, without judgment — we meet people where they are at,” said Kellie Meehan, Board President.
“It’s not the times that are different — like Jesus said, we will always have the poor — but we have added challenges that are hitting people on the margins, beyond the usual culprits of addiction, mental illness or physical abuse,” Meehan said.
Southern California is an expensive place to live, and Ventura County has a lack of low-income housing, Meehan added.
“This means that many members of our community struggle with limited access to financial and housing resources,” Meehan said. “Project Understanding can’t solve the problem as a whole — but what we can do is to do all that we can, every day, to help those we can help through our programs.”
For more information, visit www.projectunderstanding.org or call 805-652-1326.