As the closure of Ventura’s emergency winter shelter for the homeless approached last week, a woman named Sarah sat in the dining room of the National Guard armory on Arundell Drive, filling out four job applications.
“I have no idea,” she answered when asked where she was going to stay after the shelter closed on March 31. But she said she knew she wouldn’t be going back to the Oxnard women’s shelter where she and her son stayed earlier.
“It was very difficult, the rules were constantly changing,” Sarah said. “The lack of civility caused my son to have behavioral problems — to which they responded by making me send him away,” to stay with relatives.
“There’s too many of us out here that have nowhere to go,” Sarah said, a conclusion backed up by the results of a survey taken in January by the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition.
In Oxnard alone, 679 homeless people were counted — 212 of them women and 130 of them children. Of 56 families counted, eight had two parents, and 48 were single parents with children.
Only 256 were staying in available shelters — most of those at the Ventura County Rescue Mission, which has only 46 beds, available only to men and only for a 10-day maximum.
But even as the Ventura shelter and others like it in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks closed last week, county supervisors Steve Bennett and Kathy Long proposed a $3.1 million initiative with an incentive for cities to launch year-round homeless shelters.
On Tuesday, the county board passed that initiative, of which $1.1 million would also go toward a three-year pilot program for substance abusers for detox and affordable housing projects.
Long said the initiative fits with the housing element of the county’s 10-year land use plan, jump-starting campaigns by homeless advocates to get year-round shelters established in their cities.
“It makes sense to use these dollars for homeless needs,” Long said in a Friday phone interview. “I would hope it will raise the bar and help cities to say, ‘Let’s take advantage of this money quickly. We can move on this.’ ”
Nonetheless, there’s no deadline on the funding, which will be available until it runs out, Long said.
Ventura is already working on a shelter ordinance that will be discussed at an April 20 Planning Commission study session, said Ventura city officials.
“The purpose is to come into compliance with SB2,” said Peter Brown, Ventura’s community services director, referring to the 2008 state law mandating that cities set aside space for shelters.
The law clears the way for cities to establish shelters by exempting them from permits or licenses that might otherwise be needed.
“Traditionally, transitional living facilities have had to obtain a conditional use permit,” said Brown, who will be acting as the liaison between the city and whatever organization agrees to run a shelter.
Details the ordinance need to spell out are the type of building used, whether it goes in an industrial or residential zone, lighting and parking needs, on-site management and security and the length of time people can stay, said city planner Lisa Wilkinson.
Those conditions make for a critical difference between emergency shelters like the ones just closed and year-round shelters, said Cathy Brudnicki, the county’s housing and homeless coalition director.
A winter shelter is set up strictly to save lives by getting people off the street and out of inclement weather, generally without any strict conditions, said Brudnicki.
But a year-round shelter is set up more to accommodate specific needs of people who find themselves homeless, with programs designed to help them recover.
“That really is a program for people who have made a commitment,” said Brudnicki.
But Tom McLaughlin of the St. Vincent dePaul Society, which managed the Ventura shelter, said that just deciding the location of a shelter and what it should offer can be major stumbling blocks to getting one established.
“The needs of the chronically homeless are different than the temporarily homeless,” said McLaughlin. “Dealing with the different situations is what makes the problem complex.”
The chronically homeless are often mentally ill or have medical needs because of age or illness, as seniors suffering dementia; then there are the chronic alcohol and drug users.
Those groups will have totally different needs than, for example, the woman who is homeless because of a death or divorce, whose job doesn’t pay enough to keep her in the same neighborhood.
“Their requirements are totally different. For instance, how do they keep their kids in the same school?” asked McLaughlin. “It’s not the same burden as the chronically homeless.”
Then there is the reaction of people living or working near a prospective shelter site.
“It’s difficult with the homeless population overwhelming an area,” said McLaughlin, noting the reaction of business and home owners, each spring, to the shelter’s closure. “They’re happy it’s ended — when you talk about a year-round shelter, where’s it going to be?”
Among the people attending Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting to encourage approval of the plan were Loren Morgan and Larry Dennis, men who spent the winter at the Ventura shelter in the armory.
“My goal is to get off the streets; I’m tired of it,” said Morgan, who walks with the help of a cane. “I need medical attention. I’m not getting it, so I thought, nobody else is doing it, why not talk to some people?”
Morgan and Dennis want to encourage elected officials to establish shelters with programs to deal with the variety of needs McLaughlin described, with job and computer skills training or other programs to help make the homeless productive citizens.
“Counseling, job programs, anything to improve somebody’s life,” said Morgan. “I just don’t want people to think (a shelter) is a permanent home; it’s a stepping stone towards a fresh start.”
Dennis is anxious to make elected officials aware that the homeless are not all drunks and drug addicts.
“They do exist, but there’s also single families, people with mental or emotional problems,” said Dennis, who described one young man who gets $800 a month for a disability but lacks the judgment to use the money to keep himself off the streets.
“He spends it on stupid stuff. He needs somebody to help him,” said Dennis. “I would like to tell them there are people who need care. One person I know is a Vietnam vet, but he suffers from Alzheimer’s. How can he make the judgment call to go to the VA (in Los Angeles)?”