Up From the Bottom : A Flood Swept Ventura River Shanty Dwellers Back Into Society, but Aid May Be Drying Up


For those who had helplessly looked on over the years and wondered what could be done, the flood that destroyed the river-bottom shantytown last year was nothing short of a miracle.

More than 100 homeless people lived in the Ventura River bed before violent storm waters ripped out their squatters’ camp in January 1995. Since then, city and county agencies have rallied like never before to provide the riverbed settlers with shelter and social services.

More than 70 of the former river-bottom residents were placed in permanent housing in the last year, and the vast majority are still there. About 25 were able to find temporary jobs.


And, contrary to popular belief a year ago, there is a widespread view today that the changes are lasting. The homeless have not returned to the old river camp as some expected.

“Because of the flood, I’ve seen things happen that I never thought I would see happen in my life,” said Bob Costello, executive director of the HERO project, a homeless assistance center born out of that flood.

“What was done was miraculous,” Costello added. “The flood was a blessing in disguise. It was divine providence, if you will. What it did was provide a flash point for a solution, and this community responded in a big way.”

Ventura City Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures, who at the time headed a city task force looking for ways to pull the homeless out of the riverbed and push them toward something better, also looks toward the heavens when describing the events of last winter.

“It proved to be a positive act of God that drove our council to a decision,” Measures said. “As the Ventura River was spilling over its banks, and our safety officers were rescuing the homeless folks who had not heeded the warnings, it was clear to almost everyone that we had to find other solutions.”

Reversing decades of community apathy, Ventura city and county officials moved quickly to use the money and momentum generated by the flood to plot a sweeping strategy for helping the river-bottom residents.


Squatters who had spent years scratching out a life on the river floor suddenly found themselves in houses and apartments, with the federal government paying most of the rent as part of the emergency response.

Homeless people who had been lucky to earn a few dollars recycling aluminum cans wound up with steady jobs, also a byproduct of the Jan. 10 flood.

Drunks and dope addicts, chased into the river-bottom brush by their addictions, were funneled into treatment programs. The mentally ill also found help, as more than $3 million poured into the county to bankroll various flood relief programs.

Even the trampled riverbed itself has cycled back to life.

Today, however, advocates for the homeless and others see the cleanup of the river and the relocation of its homeless population as entering a crucial phase.

Now that a year has passed, homeless advocates worry that momentum has flagged. City and county officials say there is no longer the same level of interagency cooperation that existed right after the flood.

And while federal money was used to find temporary jobs for about 25 river-bottom dwellers, those funds have run out. Officials want to develop permanent jobs for the homeless, but acknowledge that they are far from that goal.


In reality, advocates and others say, the effort to help the homeless is in its early stages--with most former river-bottom dwellers a long way from fully joining the mainstream.

“I really think that it went great guns for a long time, but a few pieces of the puzzle are falling apart now,” said Evelyn Burge, a county public health nurse who regularly trooped through the riverbed thickets to deliver health care to the homeless.

“The problem is so complex, it isn’t just plopping someone into a house and saying go to it,” she said. “The real question is, can we do it when there’s not a crisis?”

The squatters’ camp that once stretched more than two miles up the Ventura River was an open-air ghetto, easily mistaken at a distance for a city dump, the thick mounds of garbage growing deeper and wider each year.

As the population swelled over the years, so did associated problems of theft, drug use and drunkenness.

“I think the city had a kind of unofficial way of dealing with the river bottom,” said Ventura City Councilman Tom Buford, who was mayor at the time of the flood and issued the emergency order prohibiting the homeless from returning to the riverbed.


“We all sat around and talked about how bad it was down there,” he said. “But as a practical matter, when we rousted people out of parks and off the pier, that was one of the places they knew they could end up without getting pushed on.”

Of the 110 river people who registered at the city’s homeless assistance center, 66 remain in federally subsidized housing made available to flood victims by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. City officials expect that subsidized housing program to continue indefinitely.

At the center, the homeless were enrolled in various assistance programs, in many cases to help them pay their share of the rent in the new housing. The assistance center, initially known as the Homeless Emergency Relocation Operation (HERO) project, was so successful it won a statewide award last year for excellence in community service.

“The flood was a mishap, but it was also kind of a miracle,” said Ashley Thompson, who formerly lived with her boyfriend, Craig Fearnow, in a carpeted and furnished river-bottom lean-to.

The couple now share a rented Victorian-style home filled with keepsakes dredged from the river floor and newer items bought with money earned at jobs generated by the flood.

“For a lot of us, it was a good thing,” Thompson said. “We prospered. We still are prospering.”


Not only are many of the homeless better off today, but the river bottom itself is a safer place for visitors.

Homeless advocates estimate that 20% to 30% of the residents were mentally ill, and that maybe half were alcoholics or drug addicts.

“It was becoming a crime problem, one where we had to go down there armed to the teeth,” said Ventura Police Lt. Carl Handy, who led regular river-bottom patrols to flush out the homeless after the place was declared off-limits.

“It’s kind of tough love stuff, forcing people to do things they don’t want to do but for the right reasons,” he said. “But it seems to have paid off. It’s a fun area that people should be exposed to. It wasn’t fun a year ago, it was dangerous.”

Environmentalists say the river bed is cleaner and healthier now that the people are gone. Places that had been trampled for years are thick with vegetation and flush with wildlife.

At first, merchants and residents worried that making the river bottom off-limits would push the homeless onto Ventura’s downtown streets, damaging efforts to spruce up that area and attract tourists.



Since the flood, however, the City Council has adopted laws prohibiting panhandling and forbidding camping at public parks and beaches. And merchants say there has been no noticeable increase in downtown homelessness.

Nevertheless, the city’s crackdown on homelessness has drawn some fire, including howls of protest from some former river-bottom residents.

“The flood was perfect. It got us all up here where they could get ahold of us,” said Dennis Ogden, a 43-year-old Santa Paula native who lived a year ago in a shanty below the Main Street bridge.

Ogden was one of nine people arrested in the months after the flood for trying to reclaim their former river-bottom homes. He says he now scours back-street dumpsters and sleeps wherever he can, stashing himself in the uncharted nooks of the cityscape.

“They want to lock us all up or they want us to leave town,” Ogden said. “The flood was perfect for them. They didn’t know how they were going to clean that mess up.”

The drive to self-sufficiency has not been without other problems inherent in plucking people out of the wilderness and depositing them back in the real world.


Many of the river dwellers could not meet their basic needs, housing officials said. Some didn’t know how to work toasters or operate heaters. Others didn’t know how to pay bills or buy groceries.

“The thing that was hardest for me was having to remember to buy toilet paper,” said Emilio Montanez, 41, who lives in subsidized housing.

But officials say the homeless are likely to encounter fewer problems as they approach their first year in subsidized housing. In addition, the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition in coming months is expected to release its regional plan to battle homelessness, which will include recommendations for sustaining--and building on--the successes that came out of last year’s flood.

“I think the crisis is every bit as real today, it’s just not as visible,” said Rick Pearson, president of the homeless coalition and executive director of Project Understanding, a Ventura-based social service agency.

“We don’t have helicopters pulling people out of raging waters, so it’s a little harder to galvanize support,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Ultimately, I believe that once people understand the need, they will respond.”