The former City Center Motel had been closed and fenced off for so long it seemed like its dilapidated, rundown structure was a permanent fixture along Thompson Boulevard.  

But that is all about to change by the end of the month as the first batch of families will move into the Kingdom Center, a rebranded, renovated version of the motel turned transitional living place for homeless families.

“We don’t know specifically, but they’re going to bring in three families,” says Jeff Argend, owner of the City Center property and the project manager who’s led the task to renovate, repair and rebuild the motel into the new center. It’s sponsored by numerous Ventura churches and Lutheran Social Services, which selects families for the program for a stay of 18 months to two years.

Argend and a team of volunteers, which includes many homeless people, have worked around the clock since December, when the Ventura City Council unanimously green-lighted the project. Their goal: out of 30 rooms, have a dozen ready for the center’s grand opening later this month.

When the time came to start work on the project, it became apparent to Argend and company that short of razing the motel and rebuilding from scratch, each room needed a major workover. Some were gutted entirely, refurbished with new roofing, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramps, electric, water and gas connections, and brand-new furniture and carpeting.

A first look at the interiors reveals that some rooms are outfitted with furnishings tailor-made to accommodate small families. In one, brand new, bunk beds and a futon couch are meant for a homeless family of four slated to move in this month.

The religious theme is maintained throughout each room as well. A lighthouse painted on a bedroom wall illuminates a passage from the book of Jeremiah.

When a fundraising campaign began on the project late last year, Harbor Community Church Pastor Sam Gallucci had announced that the church was able to garner about $91,000 toward the first 12 rooms at the Kingdom Center. Since then, another $15,000, plus furnishings and other household items, have been donated, Gallucci said. On top of that, Galucci added, Harbor Church members have spent about $100,000 of their own money to help.

Because the center is designed for families seeking a transitional, safe place to stay, no alcohol or drugs are allowed. “The rules are common sense,” says Argend, enforced by an on-site manager.

Renovations to a main office, meeting room and kitchen area, to which Lutheran Social Services will transfer from its current location at Harbor Community Church, are still in progress. Also up in the air at this point is the future of Operation Embrace, a proposed daily walk-in service for homeless people not living at the center.

The City Council put off approving the project in December because organizers of Operation Embrace have caught flak from some community members living and working in the neighborhood, claiming that the influx of homeless people into the area will welcome crime, drug abuse and vagrancy. The Han family has been vocal in its opposition because one proposed entrance leading from Ash Street to the Kingdom Center courtyard off Thompson Boulevard runs parallel to their house.

But Argend is hopeful there’s a chance those worries could be alleviated by constructing a retaining wall by the alley, or diverting foot traffic through a small passageway of a neighboring building on the corner of Ash and Thompson. The building, occupied currently by Oak Tree Property Management, is also owned by Argend.

Those plans are still tentative, he said, because more needs to be done for the Kingdom Center first, and donations are needed. Construction of locker rooms and laundry facilities may cost as much as $500,000, Argend said, and $200,000 for an office.

A ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony for the Kingdom Center, located at 837 E. Thompson Blvd., is scheduled for March 21 from 2 to 5 p.m. To learn more, visit thekingdom centerventura.com.

Sleeping in cars a go

Depending on who you ask, Ventura’s Safe Sleep program is either long-awaited or long-dreaded, yet whichever is more accurate, the city’s pilot effort to allow homeless people to sleep in their cars began last week with an auspicious, if somewhat modest, start.

Four homeless people — one couple and two other men — were allowed to legally park overnight in a Ventura lot, participants in an outreach program for homeless people  looking to be re-housed, re-employed and off the streets. After the Kingdom Center, it’s the second effort by the city to curb the local homeless problem where no full-time shelter operates. In this case, it targets the homeless whose mode of transportation is sometimes their only leverage.

Although there are strong indicators that both private parking lots reserved for the city’s $22,000 program are through churches, city officials won’t reveal where they are, to preserve the privacy of the participants but also to deter interested parties, who need approval beforehand, from showing up at one of the lots without permission.

Peter Brown, Ventura’s community services manager, did confirm last week that neighbors who live near the Safe Sleep lots were notified about the program. None has filed a complaint.

The Salvation Army is the lead organization running the screening and “intake assessment” process, which consists of an in-depth interview to determine who qualifies for the program. Some of the criteria mandated for Safe Sleep involve understanding a person’s mental health and substance abuse issues, what his or her monthly expenses are, medical needs, and proof of license, insurance and registration to drive the car.

Those accepted into the pilot program can participate for an initial 90-day period, said Capt. Bill Finley, and meetings with a case manager take place every other week. It is hoped, he said, that graduates from the program will assimilate themselves back into working and living on their own again.

“It is not an indefinite thing. They have certain goals to meet,” he said. “They’ll be progressing towards the goal of being in housing. It could be getting a job, applying for benefits, whatever it is for getting income.”
The pilot study will last for about a year, seven days a week, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Currently, there are 20 parking spots available, said Lisa Davis of the Salvation Army.

“If we have another agency that comes on board, we can have another five,” she said.

Potential participants can inquire about the program by calling 648-5032 or by applying in person at the Salvation Army Family Services office at 155 S. Oak St., Ventura, between 1:30 and 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday.