Ventura County officials extended a dialogue with frustrated Downtown Ventura business people, residents and property owners, shedding light on how health and social services are provided to homeless and destitute individuals at an event that left many questions about a vagrancy problem in the city’s historic core.

Although the Dec. 14 event was held at the Ventura County Medical Center, it was orchestrated by the Downtown Ventura Organization (DVO) in conjunction with 1st District Supervisor Steve Bennett.

“It’s not a coincidence that they call it Hobo Junction,” Bennett said. “The City of Ventura became an attractive place for homeless people a long time ago. As a result we have to deal with that historical fact.”

Bennett’s forum followed a contentious meeting this summer at which he was grilled by DVO members and others about what the county was doing about vagrants. During the height of the tourist season, business owners became increasingly distressed that aggressive panhandlers were scaring tourists and potential customers away from Downtown. Now DVO members and Bennett are trying to learn the truth about homelessness in Ventura.

“The misconception was there are a lot of services Downtown, because of these services we’ve got these problems,” said Jill Martinez, a member of the Downtown Operations Team of the Downtown Ventura Organization. “All of these months have gone by and the Downtown community has become educated.”

Addressing animosity that used to exist between county and city officials and between the county and private citizens, Bennett said conversation has helped more people realize that those causing problems aren’t using the services the county is required to provide, services which must be offered where homeless people live.

“The more we’re able to be sophisticated about this, the more we’ll be able to direct the resources to really help solve the problems that we have,” Bennett said.

Bennett invited many of the key players at the county level to discuss exactly what services their departments offer. Speakers from the Ventura County Health Care Agency, the Behavioral Health Department, and the Human Services Agency participated.

Afterwards, some from the Downtown contingent painted a less bureaucratic picture of homelessness in the neighborhood. Sherry Cash, for example, told anecdotes about three homeless individuals she had become close to in Downtown. Her presentation captured the tragic correlation between alcoholism and homelessness and the difficult reality of getting sober on the streets.

Cash said she became familiar with Ventura’s homeless population after reconnecting with her own brother, who drifted back to Ventura after twice going through the Oxnard Rescue Mission’s program.

“He went in and out of the county facilities and services,” Cash said. “What I found — continue to find as I continue to work with his friends — is there are new programs and new things happening, but still they’re put on the street at 2 to 3 a.m. with a bus token waiting for a ride to Downtown Ventura.”

One woman, Maria, has struggled with alcohol much of her life, Cash said. Denied pain pills when they enter the medical system, people in Maria’s condition turn to alcohol on the streets to deal with pain. But Maria’s life turned around when she had a chance to enter a county drug and alcohol program. After time in a detoxification program Maria quickly transitioned from a sober living house to a drop-in counseling session that proved disastrous. At the session, Maria’s case supervisor chastised her about her 10-page history of alcoholism. Cash, who was present, said the experience was “horrendous.”

“I shrunk inside and Maria shrunk in her chair,” Cash said.

Maria started drinking again that weekend, only days before she was to meet a 60-day sobriety deadline when she would be qualified to live in a home where she could clean up.

“We left there so disappointed, I’m still working on her,” Cash said.

Charlie, Cash’s final example, was an alcoholic who had been disowned by his family. He was sick and living in squalor in Plaza Park. Cash sought help for Charlie after a little kid ran up to touch him and she realized his condition could be a public health hazard. Told by health services to call the police, she was frustrated, knowing they could do little for Charlie besides urge him to move on, since he wasn’t actually dying.

Cash suggested there was a disconnect between the County officials’ presentation and the reality on Ventura’s streets.

“These Power Point presentations are great, but it’s not really what’s happening for me and my experience,” Cash said.

Another presenter, Sergeant Mark Stadler, said the Ventura Police Department is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the city.

“We’re committed to working with you,” he said.

Stadler said the police are working to identify the different groups and offshoots that are active in Downtown Ventura, such as those individuals resistant to the services the County offers.

“Those are the ones we want to identify and try to connect them with those services,” He said. “What we discovered is that the revolving door of jail is not the solution, whether it be someone with a mental illness or someone with a substance problem. That’s not the solution, everyone here knows that and we want to avoid doing that. But the frustration on our part is that typically ends up the last resort available to us.”

One idea Stadler proposed was a sobering center, essentially an empty room where drunk individuals can be taken instead of jail while intake staffers figure out what next steps they need to take. The pros and cons of that idea were discussed briefly, but it was clear that it was one of many that needed to be explored further.

Few of the nearly three-dozen questions some DVO members hammered at a meeting the day before were addressed at the forum, although Bennett said he would serve as the single point of contact on the issue and direct the appropriate county agencies to answer each one.