Moving past homelessness

Some unsatisfied by discussion of vagrancy-related crimes

By David Courtland 11/01/2007

Several public officials and others who deal regularly with Ventura’s homeless spoke Oct. 25 to about 100 Downtown business and property owners frustrated with vandalism and aggressive panhandlers.

Realtor Jerry Breiner said the presentation in the main library’s Elizabeth Topping Room was prompted by the “years of crime, stepping over people (on sidewalks) and maulings by dogs” associated with vagrancy Downtown.

“It exists, and it shouldn’t in a city that has laws,” said Breiner, who chairs Downtown Ventura Organization’s design and operations team, which sponsored the forum.

Housing consultant Jill Martinez began the forum with a report exploring whether deteriorating motels and other publicly subsidized housing are contributing to the problem.

Business owners have argued motels accepting vouchers are a magnet for the same people they are complaining about, prompting the city to pass a law last year allowing the police department to charge motel owners for repeated visits.

But Martinez said her research showed people staying in those motels or in federally funded low-income housing were generally living and getting services outside of the Downtown area.

“When you concentrate on Downtown, many services drop out, they’re not as concentrated as in the rest of Ventura,” said Martinez, who said she found 64 percent of Ventura’s public housing is outside of the 10-block Downtown section.

Likewise, Ventura County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Director Patrick Zarate said most of the people treated in the county’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program were not among the chronically homeless.

Only about a dozen of the 300 admissions per year at his agency’s Downtown site report homelessness as an issue, said Zarate.

Carolyn Briggs, director of housing for Ventura County Behavioral Health, said her agency vouchers people into motels, but not in the city.

Turning Point Executive Director Clyde Reynolds, whose foundation manages a shelter at California and Thompson streets near Ventura’s Plaza Park, said the chronically homeless who stay there aren’t major contributors to the problem.

“Unfortunately the mentally ill have created the impression they’re dangerous,” said Reynolds. “I’d say they are a very small percentage.”

Business owners in the audience indicated they were appreciative but unsatisfied, with one man declaring he defied anybody to find a use for the information after the meeting.

Westside Cellar proprietor Jim Rice said he was proud to live in a city with such compassion for the homeless, but that didn’t address the problem at hand.

“We’re talking about two different things here,” Rice said. “I haven’t been aggressively panhandled by a single mom with three kids. The lady walking down the street talking to herself isn’t the problem. The problem is the 25-year-old drug user that sits out on the sidewalk.”

Ventura Police Chief Pat Miller and Assistant Chief Ken Corney said identifying contributing factors to vagrancy wasn’t so much a problem as finding a practical solution.

“We know what the issues are, we even know what some of the solutions are,” said Miller, “but this is not just the police department’s problem — we can’t put (vagrants) in a bus and take them someplace else.”

Corney said one of the possible solutions under discussion by city staff is to ask for a municipal judge to deal exclusively with vagrant offenders, providing greater accountability for citations.

“We cite (vagrants) but don’t refer them to court,” Corney said, “because they only put on a hold on your driver’s license if you don’t show, they don’t issue a warrant.”

After the meeting Martinez and Breiner said the point of the forum was to move discussion past the issue of homelessness to the real contributors to vagrant crime.

“Now that that’s off the table, we need to look at what the contributing factors are,” said Martinez. “One is the deteriorating buildings — there is no code enforcement, people are living under horrendous conditions.”

Code enforcement is critical because property owners aren’t willing to put the effort into renovating buildings, said Martinez.

Another issue is the one pointed out by Corney, the police department’s limited choices in dealing with offenders.

“When you have these inebriated panhandlers, they’re dangerous to the community,” Martinez said. “But what are the police department’s options? They can’t arrest them just to have them put back on the streets.”

Breiner said Martinez’ research, which hasn’t been available from a single source until now, will help the police department and other agencies focus on the real issue at hand.

“Our problem is not with people who use social services,” Breiner said, “our problem is with people who break the law, and that has to be the premise for all of this.”

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