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Nonprofit Agency Chosen to Run Cold-Weather Haven for Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the Red Cross unable to continue running the county’s cold-weather shelter, Ventura-based Project Understanding was selected Monday to take over the emergency program, which each winter shields hundreds of homeless people from bone-chilling temperatures.

County officials tentatively awarded the contract for operating the shelter at the National Guard Armory in Oxnard to the nonprofit social services agency.

The contract is subject to approval by county supervisors, who are scheduled to consider the matter Nov. 21. If the deal is approved, Project Understanding plans to open the shelter the same week, to provide shelter for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“People have already been asking me when it’s going to open,” said Marion Holzwarth, who will coordinate the program for Project Understanding. “They’re telling me that it’s already cold and that they want to know when they can use the shelter.”

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The Ventura County chapter of the American Red Cross had run the program since its inception eight years ago, guiding the largely volunteer effort as it grew over the years in response to rising homelessness.

In the winter of 1988-89, the Oxnard armory provided shelter for 516 people. Last winter--when powerful storms produced a raging flood that wiped out a large homeless shantytown along the Ventura River--about twice that number sought refuge at the shelter.

But two years ago, Red Cross officials realized that the shelter had become an ongoing effort that strayed from the agency’s mission of strictly providing emergency relief.

“It became obvious that there was probably going to be an ongoing need for a program like this, and that it was kind of beyond our scope of operations,” said Mike Goth, manager of programs and services for the Red Cross. “But we were as sure as we could be that there would be an agency available to step forward and take this over. We did not feel that by leaving the operation that it would come to a screeching halt.”

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It did not. Project Understanding, which until now has concentrated its efforts in Ventura and the Ojai Valley, decided to seek the county’s permission to take over the cold-weather program. The state makes the armories available to the homeless, but the county administers the program.

“Before the armory opened, I can remember deaths due to exposure in the city of Ventura,” said Rick Pearson, executive director of the group. “We tend to think of Ventura County as a warm place, but it’s not so warm if you are stuck outdoors. I think this program is mandatory; I don’t think there is any choice but to offer it.”

The Oxnard armory opened to the homeless in 1987 after then-Gov. George Deukmejian ordered the California National Guard to open armories across the state to provide overnight shelter.

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Last year, homeless advocates statewide beat back a move by Gov. Pete Wilson to shut down the armory program. Wilson ultimately signed legislation that will make the armories available as emergency shelters this winter and next.

Under an agreement with the state, Project Understanding will be able to open the armory before Dec. 15 if weather forecasts indicate nighttime temperatures below 40 degrees, or below 50 with a chance of rain. From Dec. 15 to March 15, the armory will be open every night.

Project Understanding staff members have projected that it will cost about $88,000 to run the program this winter. The armory, at 351 S. K St., is supposed to accommodate only 120 people, but it has held as many as 150. When the doors open at 7 p.m., the homeless get a hot meal, a hot shower and a warm place to spend the night.

In the morning, they are served a small breakfast and must be out by 7 a.m.

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County officials foresee few problems in transferring the shelter program from the Red Cross to Project Understanding.

“We have a lot of the same people who volunteer year after year,” said Shirley Bush, a program administrator for the county. “We have every confidence that everything will run smoothly.”

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Still, county officials and homeless advocates realize that the armory is only a temporary remedy to a more permanent problem of homelessness in Ventura County. Before the program shuts down, officials and advocates hope to have in place a solid plan for a more permanent facility to house the homeless.

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“There is a pressing need to get something better in place,” said Supervisor Susan Lacey, who sits on the advisory committee of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, which is developing such a plan. “Perhaps the armory can be used as a springboard to getting that accomplished.”


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