Just over a year ago, Jane Carmikle’s life seemed devoid of opportunity.
Carmikle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the prognosis was not good for her health or her future. Because of the illness, efforts to find housing through the Salvation Army or RAIN (a transitional living center outside of Camarillo) were denied Carmikle, who is homeless.
“It’s real sad, because it can happen to them in a blink of an eye, the way the economy is,” she says about the local homeless community.
But like Carmikle, and for other homeless people who gather daily at the Harbor Community Church in Ventura, the outlook for starting the New Year with a roof over their heads is not as grim as it once was.
Carmikle is applying for entry to the church-sponsored Kingdom Center in Ventura, set to open its doors by the end of next month to the first dozen homeless families hoping to assimilate themselves back into the workforce and a more permanent housing situation. The transitional living center, long a project in the works with Harbor clergy, is at the site of the rundown City Center Motel, shuttered on Thompson Avenue for several years.
“It (will) shift the focus from living on the streets to finding alternatives,” says Harbor Pastor Sam Gallucci.
Gallucci and his “courtyard ministry” of homeless individuals gather daily at the Harbor Church in a quiet residential neighborhood just outside Midtown Ventura, where prayer and therapy go hand in hand for people seeking a spiritual outlet to help them get off the streets or relieve addictions to alcohol and drugs.
On a Friday afternoon, it’s a respite off the streets; some men have gathered to play chess at one table, while others separate clothing donations or help out in the church kitchen.
Harbor’s greeter, a woman named Tiffany V., is a recovering alcoholic. Homeless for the last half year, she’s spent five months with the church after a short stay at the Ventura Riverbottom encampment, where Tiffany and other homeless people were ejected by authorities.
“If the Kingdom Center doesn’t open, we’ll be back down at the Riverbottom,” said the Ventura native.
At the beginning of last week, there was an air of uncertainty looming around the Harbor Church about the Kingdom Center’s future.
“I don’t know if we’ll make it. It just depends on the opposition,” Gallucci said.
Those worries, up until now, have been justified, considering the difficulty city officials have borne trying to curb the homelessness problem in the city of Ventura, where 623 homeless people, in a population of about 100,000 (according to numbers from the city’s most recent homeless census) are without a full-time shelter. A seasonal, homeless winter warming shelter alternates annually between Ventura and Oxnard.
City officials had granted approval earlier this year to begin a pilot program allowing homeless people with cars to sleep in their vehicles at designated parking lots, during designated times. But plans for that program, which has yet to start, were met with an outcry from the Ventura business community, who claimed that it would foster crime, violence, additional vagrancy and a worsened negative image for the downtown.
The Harbor Church has had its share of problems, as well. A month ago, its primary commuter van was destroyed in a fire that police are investigating as an arson.
At last week’s Ventura Planning Commission meeting, the few criticisms voiced about the Kingdom Center were vociferous.
David Bender, a local attorney whose offices on Santa Clara Street abut the former motel’s property, told the commission that several issues surrounding the Kingdom Center have yet to be addressed regarding security and the handling of homeless residents who are mentally ill or registered sex offenders.
Mark Draganchuk, a security specialist who owns seven properties near the motel in the Thompson Avenue vicinity, said he’d support the project if it weren’t for rumors that the Harbor Church would begin reaching out beyond its patronage, and to the chronically homeless, which will saddle local property owners with increased trash, petty theft, burglaries and public defecation.
“I’d love to support it without too many issues,” Draganchuk stated. “The outreach part is where I think everything (is) going to go crazy.”
“Their issue is that it’s all happening too quickly,” says Peter Brown, the city’s community services manager.
Yet, warnings aside, the commission unanimously approved the Kingdom Center to go forward, and there have been no appeals of the project so far, according to Ventura City Clerk Mabi Plisky. The deadline is Nov. 30.
Pastor Gallucci has been adamant that outreach at the center targets the recently homeless trying to transition back into full-time employment and housing. There’ll be an application process, and candidates interested in living at the Kingdom Center must be willing and able to find a jobs, stay sober, start savings accounts and maintain those challenges once they’re living on their own again.
“They have to prove they want to transition back into society,” Gallucci said.
The pastor says he understands the public’s reservations about the project.
“They’re concerned about their property values and their businesses being impacted by the ministry being near them,” he said. “It’s a typical NIMBY issue, and it’s not the first time it’s happened.”
Despite some resistance, the Kingdom Center has gained support from at least 18 other faith-based organizations in Ventura, according to Gallucci, which have purchased rooms at the former motel. Twelve, he said, are fully funded at $5,750 per room. A fundraising campaign held last month raised more than $22,000.
The center still has a long way to go before it’s fully operational. More than $200,000 is needed to renovate completely the broken-down motel, on top of $500,000 for the addition of a brand new kitchen, case management office, a computer lab and laundry and shower facilities. Currently, those services are offered in cramped spaces at the Harbor Church.
The church holds a lease on the property through 2012, and it’s Gallucci’s hope that if the Kingdom Center proves successful, he can purchase the property.
“Our goal is to own it outright,” he said.
For the people eyeing the Kingdom Center as their permanent exit from homelessness, the future is already improving. Carmikle is cancer-free, and Tiffany V., who is now sober, said she understands why some Venturans oppose the project.
“I think they have every right to be angry, scared and upset. It’s very scary being homeless,” she said. “Until the homeless are more loved, they’re going to be scared.”
Visit thekingdomcenterventura.com for more information.