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Time Is Now for Homeless

The cycle is as predictable as the seasons:

Autumn chill brings a flurry of concern and modest efforts to shelter the homeless . . . then warm spring breezes melt those good intentions like so much snow off the Topa Topa Mountains.

This year, things could be different. For once, a real countywide effort is being made to do more than give the county’s 2,000 to 4,000 homeless people a meal and a bed--important aid to be sure, but aid that lasts only a day. Momentum toward crafting a permanent, regional strategy to assist and reduce Ventura County’s homeless population must not be allowed to bog down now that crisis time is passing.

In a special report in today’s edition of The Times, staff writer Fred Alvarez describes those efforts. The story examines the history of Ventura County’s attempts to help the homeless, the roots of this year’s confrontation, steps being taken as a result and the substantial challenge that remains.

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We have come this far before. This time, the Board of Supervisors and officials of Ventura County’s 10 cities must follow through. That is the goal of a countywide task force led by Supervisor Kathy Long, prompted by the city of Ventura’s insistence that the old way of “helping” the homeless was doing as much harm as good.

The first step is to determine which members of the large, faceless population we call “the homeless” can be helped and which cannot. Some people live on the street because of their own free choice or bad decisions. The public’s obligation to help these people is minimal.

But thousands of others are out there because of untreated mental illness, economic reversals, domestic abuse or other pitfalls beyond their control. It is to everyone’s advantage to weave a more coherent network out of the numerous existing programs that offer some of these people part of the help they need, and to help them--even push them--toward self-sufficiency. Where there are gaps in that network, they should be filled with new programs. Where there are duplications, resources should be reallocated.

Along with better coordinating existing services, each of Ventura County’s major cities should commit to establishing and funding a longer-term shelter that does not merely house and feed but gives its clients the tools they need to regain control of their lives. The RAIN shelter, operated by the county in Camarillo, is a model of such a program. The city of Ventura has vowed to do so--if large East County cities such as Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks do their share.

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Those cities are addressing the problem in their own way, but those efforts must be coordinated with the countywide effort and must be sustained all year rather than fading with the winter crisis season.

Spring may lure some transients off to other climes and make life a little easier for the homeless people who remain here year-round, yet this perennial problem demands a permanent fix. Ventura County is now moving in that direction. There will never be a better time to follow through.


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