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Tougher Tactics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Convinced that soft-hearted policies will never root out homelessness, cities across Ventura County are adopting a tough-love approach that knits together a network of services to spur the homeless to get jobs, give up handouts and get off the street.

The new attitude reflects a hardening belief that the old way of doing things hasn’t worked, that the patchwork of soup kitchens and cold-weather shelters provided over the past two decades to sustain homeless people has done little to make them self-sufficient.

Also at work is a type of “homeless burnout,” a realization the homeless are not a single, homogenous group, but a collection of subgroups, some of which need all the help society can give while others exploit every program created for them in an effort to avoid personal responsibility.

Impatience with aggressive panhandlers and drug addicts has led to get-tough ordinances in cities from Thousand Oaks to Ventura.

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Those ordinances reflect what is going on in communities across the state and nation, including such liberal bastions as Berkeley and Santa Monica, where compassion for the downtrodden is being replaced, in some cases, by disdain for the deadbeat.

“I think we as a society are asking these people to be more accountable for themselves,” said Ventura City Manager Donna Landeros, who is spearheading a planning effort aimed at getting the county’s 2,000 to 4,000 homeless people back on their feet.

“It’s doable and now is the right time to do it,” she added, citing the double blessing of a strong economy and low unemployment. “If we can’t solve the problem now there will never be a better time.”

New Local Laws Reflect Change in Thinking

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In the old days there was no such thing as a homeless person. In those days, the term was bum. About 20 years ago everything changed with the realization the high cost of housing was forcing increasing numbers of hard-working, middle-class people onto the streets.

That understanding fueled a new empathy for the homeless that led to the creation both by churches and communities of housing and feeding programs. Some forward-thinking cities offered so many services that their downtown areas became tent cities.

But as public intoxication and aggressive panhandling proliferated, the empathy began to turn sour. Now, critics of the old methods say, it’s time for a more realistic approach.

In Thousand Oaks, city leaders have adopted laws to curb overzealous panhandling, camping in public places and lying on sidewalks. In Simi Valley, the City Council last year outlawed overnight camping on public and private property.

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And in Ventura, city leaders in recent years have banned panhandling, camping in a flood plain and at public parks and beaches. Most recently, Ventura police have begun cracking down on free food giveaways in city parks.

But the new approach to homelessness is not only about getting tougher, but getting smarter. About the need to blend intelligent compassion for those in trouble with a firm plan for returning them to society.

Toward that end, a broad coalition of elected officials, city and county staff members and advocates for the homeless and mentally ill have come together in recent months to find new and innovative ways to extend services to those who truly want or need help.

In a series of unprecedented meetings sponsored by Supervisor Kathy Long through the Ventura Council of Governments, participants have swapped information and ideas to develop a regional strategy on homelessness.

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As one of the first steps in creating the broader strategy, Ventura officials are pushing to extend the life of emergency shelter programs across the county.

With such programs due to shut down next month, officials suggest converting some of them to year-round transition facilities that could help clients land jobs, find housing and escape the stranglehold of substance abuse and other problems that so often derail the drive to self-sufficiency.

Long said she hopes to deliver a report in June to the full Ventura Council of Governments board exploring the shelter issue and outlining other ways to plug the gaps in the system that delivers services to the homeless.

“I really, truly believe this is a regional issue that crosses all city boundaries and requires a regional solution,” Long said. “As always, it’s going to come down to some money. But it’s also going to come down to some creative thinking and it’s going to come down to whether communities will be able to knock down a few fences in their backyards.”

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Advocates for the homeless say they have long lobbied for that approach.

But while those with long experience in the trenches welcome the new emphasis on finally solving the homeless problem, they caution that the issues are complex, and cannot be addressed overnight or without considerable expense.

Region’s Mild Climate Attracts the Homeless

Anyone who believes homelessness can be eradicated is being unrealistic, they say. For one thing, the region’s mild climate and attractive beaches are natural draws for homeless people throughout California.

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“If concrete solutions actually materialize as a result of this I will be extremely pleased,” said Karen Ingram, vice president of Lutheran Social Services of Southern California, which provides help to homeless people in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

“But a lot of it sounds like political rhetoric,” she added. “Everybody is looking for a quick fix, but the reality is you don’t get a quick fix when there is not only one reason for homelessness and not one solution.”

Truth is, there have long been homeless people in Ventura County, and the reasons they are on the street are as varied as the efforts over the years to help them.

Some are homeless by choice, having rejected the idea that running water and flushing toilets are standard issue for the American dream. Others wind up that way after bouts with mental illness or addictions to alcohol and drugs. Still others topple over the economic ledge and plunge into homelessness after losing a job or experiencing some other personal misfortune.

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Nowhere were those dynamics more evident than on the dusty bottom of the Ventura River.

Until a few years ago scores of homeless people considered the riverbed their home. They erected plywood shacks and nylon tents and lived without worry of being pushed out or moved on.

But as the river bottom population swelled over the years, so did theft, drug use and drunkenness.

So when flood waters destroyed the encampments in early 1995, city officials seized the opportunity to post the river bottom off-limits. They used federal disaster relief to set up programs designed to help the riverbed settlers get back on their feet.

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By most accounts, that effort was hugely successful. Dozens of homeless people were able to find permanent housing and jobs.

But the rest of the homeless, the ones who didn’t get the jobs and who were still on the street, say they believe the river bottom cleanup campaign was merely the first step in a long-range plan to run them out of town.

“It really seems like they are getting meaner,” said Joyce Snow, 51, who has been homeless for a decade. “They say they want you off the street but then they don’t give you any place to go.”

Spiral Began With Death of Parents

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Snow’s slow spiral into homelessness began after the death of her parents in the early 1980s. Suffering from seizures and blackouts that left her unable to work, she began living in her car and eventually moved into a two-room shanty on the river bottom in 1989.

Today, she gets $747 a month in Supplemental Security Income, the federal program for the aged and disabled. But she said that isn’t enough to cover all the expenses of moving into an apartment.

“I would love to be off the street but there’s just no way,” she said.

The impetus for the new, tougher approach to the homeless problem came from the city of Ventura last year, when officials saw that even after cleaning up the river bottom and providing federal relief, large numbers of homeless people still proliferated downtown.

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Concerned their city was shouldering the lion’s share of the burden for caring for the homeless countywide, officials began publicly complaining that Ventura County government was failing to live up to its state mandate to provide services for that population, especially those gripped by mental illness or substance abuse.

Last spring, after county officials decided to stop funding an emergency cold-weather shelter for the homeless, Ventura officials followed suit. They contended county policies pushed the homeless into their seaside city, saying county-issued vouchers placed many of the impoverished in low-rent motels around the downtown and midtown areas.

Ventura’s action was largely unpopular, Landeros acknowledged.

But she said west side residents and downtown merchants who had long complained about aggressive panhandling, urinating in public and drunkenness forced the city to act.

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Moreover, she said the city’s refusal to keep doing things the old way finally forced county officials and leaders of other cities to come together to develop a regional strategy for helping the homeless.

“I don’t think that having a cold-weather shelter three months out of the year and then pushing them out on the street and having them fend for themselves for the other nine months is a particularly charitable way of doing things,” Landeros said.

Hope for a Network of Year-Round Shelters

Landeros hopes the broad strategy now being developed will identify homeless people with mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions and find them the help they need. Under the current system, she said, such people are lumped into the larger homeless population.

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Ultimately, she said, she would like to see a network of year-round shelters in the county’s largest cities.

Landeros said Ventura is willing to spend the $40,000 that it withheld from the cold-weather shelter toward that effort. But she warned that the only way the city will make such a commitment is if other cities across the county also promise to help.

“If it doesn’t exist in Simi Valley and it doesn’t exist in Thousand Oaks, that is unacceptable to our community,” Landeros said. “We are very willing participants, and we are actually willing to be leaders in a countywide network. But we are no longer willing to put our money into Band-Aids.”

Such tough talk has rubbed some homeless advocates the wrong way. But even those who initially bristled at Ventura’s hard-line stance have come to embrace what the city is trying to do.

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“I don’t approve of any attitude that may appear indifferent and isn’t supportive, but I would have to say that I’m a reluctant proponent of their stand,” said Susan Vinson, a member of the board of directors for the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Ventura County.

“It could end up dramatizing a larger problem,” she said. “And if that’s what it takes to move people off the dime then I’m in favor of what gets results.”

Longtime homeless advocate Rick Pearson wants results too. As executive director of the Ventura-based nonprofit agency Project Understanding, he has lobbied for years for a more comprehensive approach.

But he worries the new hard line is fostering intolerance, and that in the search for solutions there is a notion that if the cities or the county can find the perfect program, then homelessness would go away.

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He said as long as city and county leaders understand there will always be homeless people, he welcomes a new strategy.

“If the intention is finding ways to work together to make this work, I think that’s wonderful,” he said. “But I don’t think there is any evidence up and down the coast that if you become harder and less tolerant that you significantly lessen the homeless population. All you have done is become harder and less tolerant.”

Grant Aids Homeless in Simi Valley

Pearson and others who help the homeless also reject criticism that the work of so-called do-gooders over the past decades has been ineffective.

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As a member of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, Pearson and others wrote a report in 1996 that identified homeless needs and possible solutions. The report has helped draw hundreds of thousands of dollars to the county, including a three-year, $453,000 federal grant to provide more shelter beds for the homeless mentally ill and women recovering from substance abuse in Simi Valley.

The grant also will boost job-placement services and expand the hours of operation at Simi Valley’s Samaritan Center, which assists the homeless.

Last week, longtime Simi Valley resident Lanny Brannan, 39, visited the center to begin piecing his life back together. Shoved into homelessness after losing his apartment and his job as a result of the Northridge earthquake, the Royal High School graduate has been on and off the streets for four years.

Although health problems have prevented him from driving a car or holding down steady work, Brannan has made do with odd jobs. He slept wherever he found a place.

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But now, with the city outlawing outdoor camping and the new program in place to help the homeless find work, he said it’s time to change his life.

“I’m here to tell you it can happen at any time to anybody for any reason,” said Brannan, who now spends his nights in a rotating church shelter due to shut down next month. “With the new law in place, I have no idea where I’m going to go afterward. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll have a job by then and I won’t have to worry about it.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Understanding the Problem

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There are an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 homeless people in Ventura County, most of whom live in the larger cities. The following are some key characteristics of that population drawn from surveys at winter shelters last year and other data.

* 82% consider Ventura County their home and 68% became homeless while living here.

* More than half have lived in the county for nine years or more and 75% have been here at least three years.

* About 20% acknowledge problems with alcohol and/or drugs and about 25% reported recent arrests for such offenses as illegal camping, loitering and being drunk in public.

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* About 25% hold steady jobs and 30% indicated they received public assistance.

* The county issued 3,240 housing vouchers last year to the homeless mentally ill, although an unknown number was issued to the same people for a night’s stay at a motel. As many as 15% of the 1,400 people in County Jail have been diagnosed with mental illness.

* Of the winter shelter population last year, 20% were children and 21% were women.

Source: County of Ventura, Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition

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