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City Shelter for Homeless Not Ready : Transients: Ventura officials say a social services facility for those displaced by flooding may open next week.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unwilling to allow transients back into the Ventura River bottom, Ventura city officials on Tuesday nevertheless backed off a pledge to open a homeless social services facility today, saying the effort was too disorganized.

Over the course of the afternoon, city officials learned that each of the buildings they had considered for housing the center was uninhabitable because of asbestos problems.

Then, at an informal meeting of service providers and city and county employees, officials realized they did not have a realistic plan for running the facility. They also worried that they would anger restive homeless people even more by enticing them to an assessment center and then offering them only the same services that have always been available.

“There’s a lot of risk in bringing all these (homeless) people together and disappointing them,” said Randy Feltman, director of the county Mental Health Services Department.

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Instead, homeless service providers and city officials said they want to open the center sometime next week, after they have more time to organize and get direction from the City Council, which meets Monday night.

Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures, who raced to get the center open by midweek, did not attend the afternoon meeting and was surprised to hear of the delay.

“It’s really disappointing when you have a plan to carry out and no place to house it,” she said.

Local officials have struggled since last Tuesday’s floods with the issue of how to manage Ventura’s now displaced homeless population.

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About 200 people used to stay in the dusty flats of the Ventura River bottom. But last week’s rains turned the dried-out riverbed into a raging torrent of water that washed out the shanties and sleeping bags and displaced the squatters who had come to call the area home.

Last fall, city officials spoke longingly of kicking the homeless out of the river bottom, saying they bothered downtown merchants and polluted the river habitat. But the officials were stymied by court decisions in other cities that said such an action could violate the squatters’ civil rights.

Since Tuesday’s rains accomplished the task for them, however, local officials have been hard at work on an alternative plan. The first step was to have been the services center that was to open this morning.

Police are now guarding the river bottom to forbid people from moving back. River bottom homeless were first sent to a shelter at a local middle school, then shipped over to Oxnard to stay at a Red Cross shelter at the National Guard Armory. Others have been staying at a Ventura Avenue church that volunteered space until more permanent shelter became available.

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“They’ve got what they have on their backs and maybe a blanket,” said Ashley, who lived in the river bottom. “The people with houses got some relief right away. The people like us have to wait two weeks.”

The assessment center was designed as a one-stop facility where transients could find housing, medical care and other services.

The shelter at the armory, which now runs 24 hours a day, was scheduled to close during daytime hours starting today. But Red Cross officials said, given the cancellation of the assessment center, they will try to keep it open all day through the end of the week.

County and Red Cross officials who have worked with the transients this past week told meeting participants that stress levels are rising precipitously at the shelters, because the displaced river dwellers worry about where they will live next and what will become of their pets and belongings.

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“The frustration level and the tension level is going to rise,” said Dave Edwards, a Red Cross volunteer who said he has worked extensively with the river bottom homeless since the floods. “If the (opening date) is changed, I don’t know what will happen except violence.”

Other officials agreed, however, that the risk of violence could be even greater if homeless people arrived at the service center today to learn that the city still had no new housing or job options for them.

“Some of these people have coping problems anyway,” said Ventura’s new city manager Donna Landeros, addressing the group on her first day on the job. “When they find out this is not the panacea, not everything they were hoping for, it’s going to be difficult.”

Even if the city had been able to provide a building in which to house the center, the service providers were at a loss Tuesday as to how they would run it.

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Told it would be limited to river bottom homeless, officials wondered how they could distinguish between the displaced river dwellers and all the other homeless people in the county.

In addition, they had no plan for transporting the homeless from the armory to the center or for what agencies would help with the center.

Many former river squatters want to return to the riverbed to retrieve their belongings, Red Cross officials said. And so the committee also grappled with how to escort people there to retrieve their belongings, and then where to store their possessions once they had taken them out of the muddy river flats.

In the end, they agreed they were not ready to open a services center barely a week after the flood.

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“I think we just need to be honest and say we can’t do something to solve everybody’s problem,” said Brian Bolton, the executive director of the Ventura County Red Cross. “But we’re doing the best we can.”

Correspondent Jeff McDonald contributed to this story.


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