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3 Churches Drop Out of Network Offering Shelter to the Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blaming volunteer burnout and bad relations with their neighbors, three of the seven churches in the city’s shelter system have stopped inviting homeless people in to sleep overnight.

As temperatures start to dip toward freezing, only one more church has stepped in to help this season. And shelter organizers worry that their fractured hospice network will leave the city’s homeless population out in the cold three nights a week, exposed to rain, illness and death.

That makes Simi Valley the largest city in Ventura County without full-time winter shelter available for those without a permanent residence.

“I’m feeling pretty rough about it,” said Max Holdcraft, shelter coordinator for the Samaritan Center, a daytime drop-in headquarters for Simi Valley’s homeless people. The center provides a place for the homeless to receive mail, use telephones and apply for government assistance.

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“I’ve been in the streets myself off and on since I was 18,” he said. “So I understand the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness when you’re out there in the street, when you’re cold and wet and when you’re soaked to the bone and chilled. . . . I’ve been around where people have died of exposure in the cold.”

The shelter program is called Public Action to Deliver Service, or PADS. For the past eight years, the seven Simi Valley churches in the PADS network have shared shelter duty, each offering sleeping space to the homeless only one or two nights a week to avoid aggravating their neighbors.

But when last winter brought a surge in the overnight transient population and an increase in the number of drinkers, drug users and rule breakers who were trashing neighbors’ property, three churches pulled out of the network.

“The morning my husband came in with a crack pipe [he had found], I thought to myself, ‘This has got to stop,’ ” said the Rev. Canon Barbara Mudge of St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church.

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“I still do not know what happened, but all of a sudden they were [housing] as many as 40 to 45 people a night and there was not enough room for them in our parish hall” on Sunday and Monday nights, she said. “They were staying in their cars overnight outside, and we were having problems with the neighbors.

“There were people urinating up against fences, walking through their yards and trampling their plants,” Mudge recalled. “There were beer bottles being thrown over the wall into their gardens, and in the meantime, every Monday and Tuesday morning we were finding bottles in our gardens.”

To make the problem even more visible, St. Francis had allowed the Samaritan Center to open its doors 14 months ago inside a building on church grounds, she said, and the sight of homeless people hanging out during the day may have further aggravated neighbors.

With that, a church committee let St. Francis’ congregation decide what to do. And the congregation decided to shut down the overnight center.

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The Church of Christ, which helped found Simi Valley’s PADS network eight years ago, also bowed out of the shelter program.

“It was not an easy decision,” said church elder Bill Johnson, but church members who volunteered to stay overnight with the homeless visitors were overworked, and simply burned out from a lack of support.

“There were certain couples [from the church] that would take turns staying overnight,” he said. “It just got kind of old, in that most of the time it was the same couples all the time . . . The [homeless] people that were in the program kinda felt like they didn’t have to follow certain rules.”

The other church that dropped out was Our Saviour Lutheran Church.

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To complicate the shortage of shelter space, the PADS network feeds Simi Valley’s homeless people at sites that are usually separate from the sleep sites. Even free bus rides cannot always accommodate people trying to travel from board to bed, Holdcraft said.

Over the years, the city government has granted money to the shelter network and walk-in center, which are now merged--$39,000 for PADS and $114,000 for the Samaritan Center, said Assistant City Manager Laura Herron. But the city government has no plans yet to open its own shelters for the homeless, she said.

“We are willing and interested in supporting these kinds of programs through funding sources,” she said. “But . . . the city has not looked to be in the business of providing shelter or programs ourselves in a community where there are already programs that can provide support and services.”

But with PADS’ cold-weather shelters open only four nights a week in the winter, “someone could die,” said Kathy Sube, executive director of the Ventura County Coalition for Housing and the Homeless.

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“Everybody,” she added, “should be entitled to a warm place to sleep.”

Said Mudge, of St. Francis: “I think the city of Simi Valley needs a wake-up call. The city needs to come to terms with the fact that the homeless are going to be here, and do something like what the city of Los Angeles did: There are empty buildings in Simi Valley where something like [a full-time winter shelter] could happen.”

Meanwhile, another church has stepped in to help replace the churches that backed out of the shelter program last March.

The United Methodist Church opened a room in its community hall Saturday night and let homeless people sleep on the floor.

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Chet Hamilton, the church’s shelter coordinator, is optimistic the Methodist church can avoid some of the problems suffered by its fellow churches.

“I think we probably have better control over the situation at our church,” he said.

Hamilton said he has confidence in the Samaritan Center’s Holdcraft, who is familiar with most of the city’s long-term homeless and who will help screen out the partyers and rule breakers.

“And I’ll continue to stay overnight until I’m sure things are functioning properly,” Hamilton said. “I don’t intend to stay every Saturday night till the end of March, but if I have to, I will.”

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