Creating a Ventura River Parkway accessible to everyone by transforming frightening and environmentally degraded homeless encampments is a challenging goal, but progress is finally visible after years of halting efforts. Numerous groups are working together toward that vision, including government agencies, environmental and social service charities, property owners and Patagonia employees, whose headquarters are nearby.
One strategy for restoring the sensitive river ecosystem is activating the area with hikers, bird-watchers, picnickers and other nature lovers. Patagonia workers have contributed to that effort for the past 19 years by staging a 5K footrace called the Salmon Run, with proceeds benefiting environmental groups. This year’s event sold out with 400 runners, and funded a coalition committed to the watershed called Friends of the Ventura River.
I recently took up running, and decided to make the Salmon Run my first race. The course parallels the river, and I found part of the joy of participating is connecting with the nearby habitat. While driving along Highway 33 it’s easy to forget the river is even there, but running beside it and enjoying views of surrounding mountains creates a feeling of unity with nature.
Extensive efforts to remove encampments are also now under way, involving both private property owners and government agencies facing potential fines from regulators if water quality in the river is not improved.
The Ventura Hillsides Conservancy received a riverside property donation near the Main Street Bridge, not far from the estuary frequented by numerous birds that is close to Surfers Point Park. Volunteers are laboring to remove tons of trash and invasive plants that hide campsites.
I helped with the cleanup efforts recently, and even though I had heard the area described as “hobo jungle” since growing up in Ventura, I was stunned by how elaborate some campsites were.
I had mixed feelings about uprooting campsites that had clearly been home to numerous people. But I also knew that all the tents, furniture, blankets and trash would flow to the ocean once winter rains raise the river’s water level and endanger the inhabitants.
We found an improvised toilet filled with human waste and surrounded by poison oak, and contemplated how to proceed. A volunteer from Patagonia lifted the large bucket and carried it away for proper disposal. That reminded me that bacteria caused by unsanitary living conditions result in illness to unlucky surfers riding the waves near the mouth of the river.
Working as a news reporter for KVTA AM 1520 for more than a decade, I’ve learned about charities and government agencies committed to helping homeless people lead healthier lives. I’ve also spoken with homeless people who never venture near the river because they’re afraid of criminals who dominate some camps and prey on weaker people. Authorities recently unearthed a homicide victim from the ground, and no arrests have been made.
It’s clear that ending homelessness is a challenging goal, because every individual has unique issues. Some want to work and find appropriate housing, others are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and many suffer from mental illness.
Authorities refer to some as criminal vagrants with no desire to change their ways. I’ve heard that many river inhabitants traveled from places like Texas where the weather is less hospitable, and that they had heard that soft-hearted Ventura residents would give them free food and clothing, while illegal camping laws went unenforced.
Despite the complex questions about how to deal with homelessness, it’s clear that river camping is a bad solution. The tide may finally be turning, thanks to the concerted efforts to make it stop.