After a week of combined cleanup and enforcement efforts along the Ventura River bottom, it’s safe to say there are no more permanent homeless encampments from the Main Street bridge to the county-owned Stanley Avenue parcel near Highway 33, according to city officials.
“There are no more of these illegal camps,” said Community Services Manager Peter Brown. “Now these efforts will shift south of the [Main Street] bridge.”
Residents and property owners had been concerned about what kind of impact moving out the river bottom campers would have on the surrounding community. Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney said there is “a perception that the people who are living in the river bottom stay there all day. They’re out in the community most of the day and visible to people during the day. The idea that we’d see a big difference during the day is not the reality.”
Corney said the police station was receiving an average of 150 calls a week related to vagrancy in the weeks leading up to the river bottom operation. During the week of the operation, there were only 120 calls.
On Tuesday night, however, the city posted signage along Seaward Avenue warning residents about an increase in auto burglary. Early Wednesday morning, fire officials reported that the cause of a brushfire on the hillside of Ventura Avenue was the result of an untended cooking fire near a hillside homeless encampment.
Following weeks of notices to vacate the river bottom, beginning on Sept. 17, 43 individuals and their animals were escorted from about 20 camps on the Stanley Avenue property last week, according to the county’s Homeless Services Program, and the county began mowing the non-native, arundo plant that helped create shelter for the illegal camps.
Many had already vacated the river bottom prior to last week, but the remaining dwellers were given the option of storing their belongings with the city for up to 90 days. About 20 of the individuals agreed to commit to a management plan to end their homelessness, and received motel vouchers from the county.
One hundred tons of trash and debris were removed from the parcel in just two and a half days, for a total of more than 300 tons of trash removed from the river bottom this year, confirmed Karl Novak, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District’s deputy director, who said the county’s budget for the cleanup is $60,000.
“Free camping [in the river bottom] is not free because of the cost of police and fire and all those people living in unsanitary conditions ending up in county hospitals [or] prisons that taxpayers pay for,” said Paul Jenkin, a representative from Friends of the Ventura River coalition.
While the trash removal is crucial to be in compliance with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and avoid potentially hefty fees, some residents fear that the removal of the river bottom camps could lead to more crime and increased vagrancy in the city.
The Pierpont Community Council recently sent out an email suggesting a car patrol service in the Pierpont area because “many of these vagrants are criminals and end up on our streets, lanes and beaches.”
Corney said it’s too soon to draw conclusions regarding crime and increased vagrancy. The main goal of the operation at this point, he affirmed, is to establish patrols to keep permanent encampments from returning to the river bottom.
Pastor Sam Gallucci said that Operation Embrace, a daytime walk-in center that provides food, clothing, showers, laundry and full case management referral services at the Harbor Church in Midtown Ventura, typically serves about 85 people a day. Since the river bottom extraction, Gallucci said, the center is seeing about 105 people daily, a 20 percent increase.
“We’re very pleased at the efforts by city and county for finding a place for them and very thankful for that,” he said, referring to the motel voucher program. “I am concerned about when the funding ends and the shelter ends, there will be impact in the city. Unless we address the other issues, they will end up sleeping in very visible places.”
The winter warming shelter will be in Oxnard this winter and opens in November.