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Groups Look for Ways to Help the Homeless in Thousand Oaks : Social services: Support for the winter shelter grows. A daytime drop-in facility is also proposed. But some residents balk.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Myths crumble quickly in the Conejo Valley winter homeless shelter.

First to go: the widespread perception that there are no homeless in affluent Thousand Oaks. About 15 men and women sleep in the shelter each night; dozens more drop by for a free dinner and then bunk in cars outside.

Next to shatter: the stereotype of homeless people as Skid Row bums or bag people toting rag-tag belongings. The homeless who frequent the shelter--which bans drugs, alcohol and cigarettes--are mostly clean and kempt, former business owners and warehouse managers, even retired city employees.

A final myth debunked: the homeless are alone. Although some critics have lambasted Thousand Oaks for ignoring its estimated 80 to 150 homeless residents, a grass-roots campaign has galvanized hundreds of volunteers eager to staff the shelter.

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Open December through March, the 4-year-old shelter rotates each night among seven host churches and temples in Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village. An additional 15 congregations help cook dinners and prepare take-away breakfasts, said Director Karen Ingram.

“The more people in the community get involved, the more they realize that the homeless are just like you and me--there but for the grace of God go I,” said Ingram, who also serves as vice president of Lutheran Social Services of Southern California. “There are people out there with mental health problems and substance abuse problems, but they are not the majority.”

Now, two months after a homeless woman gave birth to a baby girl on a hillside above Thousand Oaks in a much-publicized incident that shocked many residents, social service agencies and concerned citizens are teaming up to attack the problem.

They’re pressing the city to approve a proposed drop-in center adjacent to the city’s social services center on Hillcrest Drive. The new center would be a daytime facility where the homeless could shower, wash clothes, pick up mail, make phone calls, type resumes and do schoolwork.

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Roger Toft, president of the Conejo Homeless Assistance Program, estimates that it will take two years and $400,000 to win approval from the city and build the drop-in shelter. The Thousand Oaks City Council granted the program $50,000 in 1991 as down payment on a center, and will keep the money available until an appropriate site is found, Mayor Judy Lazar said.

“The problem is, we don’t have two years,” Toft complained. “When we started all this three and a half years ago, there was a problem and now it’s worse. We need to provide some of those services now, today.”

That won’t be easy.

In the past 18 months, furious neighbors have twice forced the City Council to reject sites for drop-in centers, one in a residential area on Crescent Way and the second in a dilapidated two-bedroom home on Willow Lane.

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Fearful that a center would draw homeless people from Los Angeles into Thousand Oaks, worried about aimless men loitering on their streets, neighbors protested with the standard battle cry--"Not in my back yard.”

Shelter directors are so afraid of this attitude that they requested that congregations which host the rotating shelter not be named.

This track record has convinced some people that the community is dead-set against offering the homeless any incentives to stay in Thousand Oaks, where about 8% of the county’s roughly 2,000 homeless people live.

“This area will never go for it,” said David Jenkins, 37, who has slept in weeds and shelters for 3 1/2 years, since losing his job as a warehouse manager for a cosmetics firm.

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“Most people are afraid of alcoholism, afraid that if homeless gather in their neighborhood there will be vandalism,” Jenkins said after gulping down lasagna and salad at a shelter last week. “Well, this town already has vandalism and gang members. Wake up. People here don’t want to face the reality of the ‘90s.”

With his straggly beard, bloodshot eyes, dirt-creased hands and too-big jeans, Jenkins looked a lot like the stereotypical “bums with ratty-tatty clothes” that volunteer Marsha Richardson said her congregation envisioned--and feared--when she proposed working with the shelter.

But most of the men Jenkins clasped hands with in an improvised prayer circle before dinner--"Thank you for a break in the rain, for dry shoes for a while, for no wet pants around the ankles"--were clean-shaven and tidy. They clutched newspapers rather than plastic bags, did crossword puzzles rather than drugs.

“The homeless aren’t necessarily street people with shopping carts, drunks and derelicts,” said Toft, who admitted he had bought into the stereotype before starting to work with the homeless several years ago, in memory of his deceased wife.

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“These are people who lived next door to you for 10 years,” Toft added. “They are residents of Thousand Oaks. They just had a bad turn of luck.”

Because landlords often demand first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit, moving to an apartment in Thousand Oaks costs upward of $2,000--not including utility hookups.

The public housing authority has long since stopped taking applications because the waiting list is so long. It will take five years before all 2,400 families on the list receive vouchers to help them pay rent, said Carolyn Briggs, executive director of the area housing authority.

So people like Ken Bonawitz have few options.

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A retired city employee, 60-year-old Bonawitz used to volunteer in a downtown Los Angeles homeless shelter, cooking meals twice a month.

“The first time I went to the mission . . . I looked in the door and saw how anything (the homeless) owned, they carried,” said Bonawitz, a blue-eyed, gray-haired, wiry man who walks with a bow-legged limp. “I thought about that today, when I held my own bags. Here I am, just like they were.”

Bonawitz added simply: “I never thought I’d be in a shelter. But when your money runs out, that’s it.”

When he retired from his job in the Thousand Oaks waste water treatment department several years ago, with a $700-a-month pension and $450 in social security payments, Bonawitz felt reasonably secure.

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But then his rent-controlled apartment caught fire, and when the landlord rebuilt it, he jacked the rent from $360 to $600 a month.

Renting a cheaper room in a house didn’t work out because of a personality clash with the homeowner, so Bonawitz now stays either in a motel for $30 a night or in the shelter--where, he says with a chipper grin, playing cards with the other guests “makes the nights go by great.”

Each year, he has more friends to chat with.

The shelter’s population has grown steadily. Last year, volunteers registered 106 overnight guests, compared with 81 in 1991, Director Ingram said. And this year’s tally will apparently be even higher, although final statistics have not been tabulated.

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About 75% of the clients are men, and more than 80% are age 18 to 55, although the shelter does house about a dozen children a year, including an occasional infant.

Despite some critics’ fears that services for the homeless attract transients, Ingram said last year that two-thirds of the shelter’s clients had lived in Thousand Oaks for more than 12 months. Ojai and Simi Valley have their own winter shelters and Ventura and Oxnard sponsor year-round facilities for families.

“These are not people from Oxnard who come because they think it’s better to be homeless in Thousand Oaks,” activist Toft said.

A handful of the men who set up flimsy cots in their Wednesday night home, a church day-care center decorated with paper snowmen and bright cartoon posters, hold full-time jobs. Living and eating in the shelter helps them save for a decent apartment, they explained.

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Grinning broadly under his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache, 44-year-old Sonny said he will soon count himself in that category. A onetime business owner who used to run a small trucking company, Sonny has been down and out since October, 1991, when the economy crashed and he lost his job.

His unemployment checks couldn’t cover the $350 room he rented in Newbury Park, and so the Hawaii native, who asked that his last name not be printed, moved in with friends, slept in his car and eventually found his way to the shelter. Like many homeless people, he has not told his family of his plight.

“It’s my personal problem and I can get out of it myself,” he said. “People quote the word homeless like you’re hard to straighten out. I know I can get back to where I was before. I just never lose faith.”

Sonny’s new full-time job at the Olive Garden in Simi Valley, where he will earn $5.25 an hour chopping vegetables and making spaghetti sauce, may be the key to turning his life around, he said.

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Independence might be good for his waistline too, Sonny said ruefully. He has gained 26 pounds since the shelters opened in December, thanks to the frequent pasta dinners and the “outstanding desserts,” he said, mopping up the last dribbles of sauce from his paper plate with a whole-wheat roll.

Sonny’s persistence in job hunting paid off, but most homeless people find it extremely tough to land full-time work because they lack an address and phone number and often have no place to shower or launder their clothes.

“I work with them on their resumes and when we get to the part under name, it’s like, ‘Gee, what do we do about the address and phone number?’ ” said Ingram, the shelter director, who often lets homeless job hunters use her office to collect mail and messages.

A drop-in center--which would be the county’s second, modeled on a daytime facility in Ventura--would provide these services.

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Support for the idea seems to be growing. Even council members who voted against the two previous proposals for a drop-in center in residential neighborhoods said they would probably support a facility adjacent to the social service building on Hillcrest Drive.

The prospect pleased the dozen homeless people who folded warm blankets neatly over their cots in a church shelter last week before lining up for dinner, women and children first.

“You need to help at the early stages,” Sonny said. “I’ve seen some homeless people in Oxnard and Los Angeles and it’s hard to pull them out of it because they’ve been down for so long.”


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