Some people are born to be wild. Dana “Dee Dee” Watkins was one of those people.

Watkins, 52, of Ventura, didn’t know the meaning of caution. She did what she wanted to, when she wanted to, and there was no stopping her. But her life didn’t start out so — crazy. In her self-published autobiography, It took a Spider to Make Me Stop, she goes into great detail about her sorrows, her addictions, her children and her life on the streets. Her tale may be familiar to some, but to others, it was a life of chaos and debauchery.

From a home in Malibu to the homes of gang members, smoking PCP and drinking loads of alcohol, and exposure to violent activity, Watkins went from stability in elementary school to anarchy by the time she was in high school. But there was no stopping Watkins. She did what she had to, to get by, but her addictions to alcohol and PCP weren’t going to stop any time soon. By the time she was 27, she had three children, all of whom ended up in foster care at one point, either by her choice or social services. She went from working in restaurants to dealing hard drugs and spending time in jail on various occasions.

“The people I was with — I felt no hesitation,” Watkins said, relaying that she never felt a reason to stop, until she went to jail. “The regret, it was so heavy in incarceration.”

But no matter the chaos in life, her loneliness seemed to reign supreme and drive her addictions to men, drugs and alcohol. She eventually wound up on the streets and found refuge in a wrecking yard for 10 years. During her time there, she became pregnant again and decided to sober up. She gave birth to a daughter whom she named Destiny. She had given up drugs and found a place to live, but her alcoholism was about to push her over the edge. One drink too many, a fender bender and a suicide attempt, and she lost her daughter to the state. Destiny was 11 at the time. With few resources and the loss of her daughter to the system, Watkins relied heavily on alcohol to soothe her pain and had several troubled men in her life to keep her company.

Despite all that Watkins had experienced, it wasn’t until a spider bit her while she was sleeping under a bridge last December that she would decide to stop the chaos — the drinking, the rotation of men, jail time. After nearly 40 years of recklessness and periodically living on the street, she decided to take up residence at Ventura’s homeless encampment, River Haven.

Since August, when she came to River Haven, she has remained committed to sobriety. This month, it is one year since her last drink. She found seasonal work as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army and crochets bags and yarmukles to sell one day. She is also reaching out to the community with her detailed and sometimes disheartening 35-page autobiography, in the hope it will serve to help others and prevent them from living a similar lifestyle.

Paul White, a local teacher and a friend of Watkins, whom he met through his work with the homeless, helped publish her book and to network so, eventually, she can move to permanent housing, obtain a regular job and possibly reunite with her daughter.

“Life is an ongoing family reunion,” White said. “We are here to do something for somebody else. There is no other explanation for it.”


Project River Haven

Watkins life’ story isn’t so dissimilar from those of many who live on the streets. Drug and alcohol addiction can lead some down a very dismal path. Unfortunately for Watkins, her drug and alcohol abuse has led to mental illness.

“It’s now catching up to me,” Watkins said. She was diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder, which she manages through medications.

River Haven, which began seven years ago and sponsored by Turning Point, a social services nonprofit organization, and the city of Ventura, has served as a springboard from homelessness to permanent housing and gainful employment. In October 2009, thanks to grants and the help of volunteers, River Haven shelters evolved from tents to U-dome structures, much sturdier than canvas tents. River Haven residents have a maximum of two years to get on their feet and into a stable environment.

In the last two years, the homeless encampment has seen some changes in its demographics. From July 2009 to June 2011, the population has decreased just slightly, from 44 to 40. The average length of stay has also decreased from around eight months to five months or less, from year to year.

There has been an influx of residents dealing with substance abuse and mental illness, year over year, from 64 percent to 76 percent of the encampment’s population having substance abuse issues, and 57 percent to 76 percent dealing with mental illness. The population has also seen an increase of around 20 percent in the number of residents who are clients of Ventura County Behavioral Health and those with physical impairments that make it harder for them to work and keep a job. Year over year, the employment track out of homelessness dropped from 44 percent to 17 percent, which is attributed to shift in the population’s mental and physical health. Over the last year, more residents were placed in skilled nursing facilities or rehabilitation programs.

“We have some success getting people in jobs,” said Corliss Porter, clinical director for Turning Point. “The biggest success is getting them onto disability and getting them medical care.”

Though the original idea for River Haven was to move residents into permanent housing via employment, the need isn’t as high for that, at least for those who have recently flocked to the encampment. She said that the shift in the demographics is a reflection of changes in the overall homeless population. 

“It’s the nature of the homeless of the population,” she said.