A finalized plan that would permit homeless people to sleep in their cars in Ventura should be complete by October, after a productive community meeting last week garnered feedback, and some surprise public support, on the city’s proposed Safe Sleep program.

Ventura’s community services department is scheduled to present its request for proposal (RFP) before the City Council at its Oct. 5 meeting. The council, who’ve already approved $22,000 in funding for the program, will be expected to decide if it’s carried forth.

Long touted by its advocates as just one critical solution in helping curb the city’s widespread homeless problem, the proposal asks to enact a small, pilot project enabling homeless people with cars to sleep in their vehicles in select Ventura parking lots.

“This program is there to help the episodically homeless who, at this particular time, find themselves temporarily homeless, and really need a program like this,” Elena Brokaw, the city’s community services director, states.

If approved, it is hoped the program will allow up to 15 cars total to park in a handful of lots across town. It’s based on similar outreach efforts in Oregon and in Santa Barbara, whose own version of the safe sleep project accommodates about 85 cars. If the Ventura project is able to be launched within the next few months, it’s also anticipated it will be a way of assisting the city’s over-capacity, seasonal winter warming shelter. Currently, there is no shelter in Ventura year-round.

However, despite the perceived small scale of the program, community outcry has reflected worries that parking lots will be overrun as breeding grounds for crime, drug abuse and a threat to community safety, all serving as a Band-Aid approach to prolong homelessness rather than solving it.

“I think people who oppose it automatically leap to a worst-case scenario,” says Peter Brown, the Ventura community services manager spearheading what he calls a “tightly controlled pilot program.”

Brown organized and led the well-attended community seminar last Thursday at Ventura City Hall, outlining specifics of the Safe Sleep plan, dispelling false rumors about its fundamentals, and listening to feedback, both positive and negative.

“The meeting,” he said afterward, “confirmed that we would likely be heading in a sleeping-in-cars program. I think we changed some minds. Getting good information is the key.”

At the gathering, Brown stated that those selected for the Safe Sleep program will be episodically homeless — those transitioning off the streets and those amenable to receiving public help — and open only to people in Ventura.

“This project should not turn into something that’s a destination point,” he said. “We want to service people in the City of Ventura.”

Feedback volleyed between the accepting to the still reluctant, though many skeptics were won over by the facts of the project. One woman in attendance expressed her worries about accountability over safety.

“Are we simply going to have to be calling the cops all the time?” she asked.

Another woman later countered, “They’re not looking for a place to party. They’re looking for a place to sleep.”

Although long-standing criticisms over the possible use of public lots in the pilot program prompted Mayor Christy Weir to reiterate in July that only spaces offered by private parties would be considered, concerns over public use for the Safe Sleep project were nonetheless still voiced on Thursday. Some took the stance that private entities should not be solely responsible for providing parking, while others rejected completely the idea of using public space.

Members of the Downtown Ventura Organization, who at first stated that locating the program near the downtown would harm local commerce and tourism, opened up to the sleeping-in-cars effort after Weir emphasized the exclusion of public parking lots.

“I thought it was very productive,” Rob Edwards, DVO director, said about last week’s meeting. “There was no talk of putting public lots back on the table, which pleased me.

“Doing this pilot project anywhere downtown would have huge negative impacts,” he continued.

Other ideas expressed at the meeting were not originally on the table for the community services plan. Sherry Cash, a leader in the local homeless prevention movement, called for the assignment of one team leader for participants in the pilot, citing a policy used in Santa Barbara’s safe sleep program.

Another suggestion was to ask the City Council to lift an ordinance banning the use of sleeping in driveways, should homeowners be willing to donate theirs for cars in the program. Yet another was proposing the idea of term limits, allowing for another new group of homeless people to take part in the program after a predetermined number of months has passed.   

The City Council will consider the Safe Sleep program Oct. 5, 6 p.m., in the council chambers of Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St., Ventura.