Ventura's Homeless Program Wins State Honor for Service

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A city homeless program that began as a hasty response to natural disaster has been recognized as a model of civic service by the California League of Cities and the nonprofit Institute for Local Self Government.

City officials said the honor was well-deserved, although at least one homeless advocate questioned whether the accolade was premature for a program that has not stood the test of time.

The recognition also came on the day that the City Council voted to ban camping in public places, a law aimed at rooting the homeless out of downtown.

Ventura officials were notified Monday that the city's Homeless Emergency Relocation Operation (HERO) project had been awarded a 1995 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence in the category of community service.

The HERO program provides housing, counseling and employment services to displaced people.

"I think it's terrific," Councilman Gary Tuttle said, "and . . . very important since the award says we have done something to help the homeless."

The award, one of nine presented to cities statewide in various categories, will be formally announced on Oct. 22 at the League of Cities' annual conference in San Francisco. Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to present it to city leaders in Sacramento later this year.

"We are extremely pleased and rather surprised," said Everett Millais, the city's community services director. "It really is a relatively new program."

Because the program is so new, homeless advocate Brian Lee Rencher questioned whether it should be receiving awards for excellence.

"Sure, it's OK to tell these folks you are doing a great thing, but isn't it a little premature?" said Rencher, who is homeless and said he chose that lifestyle. Rencher also is running for Ventura City Council.

While Rencher said the program hasn't affected him, he credited it with helping many other homeless people. "But will [the city] maintain it?" Rencher said. "Is this something they are doing for political advantage, or are they committed?"

Although county agencies have aided the program--particularly Ventura County Mental Health Services--the city of Ventura has footed much of its cost.

Now officials are seeking private sector sponsorship for the program, Millais said. "It is not going to be possible to maintain it with just city and county funding."

After January's floods forced more than 100 homeless people out of their river bottom shantytown, the city was able to secure 50 federal housing vouchers and set up a temporary shelter at Camarillo State Hospital. That facility will no longer be available after Jan. 31, 1996, however.

The city subsequently banned camping in the river bottom, essentially pushing the area's homeless into the new program it had established. The City Council went a step further this week by banning camping in public parks.

Although the program began as an emergency response, it has evolved in recent months to an employment agency for the homeless.

Executive Director Bob Costello said the fledgling project is working with the Job Training Policy Council and plans to launch daylong public work projects within the city later this fall.

"I have high hopes for it," Millais said. "I am hopeful the program will be embraced by private-sector business. That is going to be key."

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