When God calls upon devout Christians, many will do as the divine asks. For the last five years, the Rev. Sam Gallucci and members of the Harbor Church in midtown Ventura off Preble Avenue have done just that. Their mission, via the program Operation Embrace: feed, clothe and help the homeless find jobs, housing, etc. There is one major problem, however — the church is located smack dab in the middle of a middle-class, family-oriented neighborhood and right next to a park, day care and an elementary school. Though caring for the homeless is perceived as a noble cause, the church has attracted and continues to attract less-than-desirable needy folk. (Problems with the church were first reported in the VCReporter in 2009.) One of the major issues at hand: When certain people don’t fit the criteria to obtain services, they are turned away and left to wander in the neighborhood, according to nearby residents.
Suzannah Underwood, a Midtown resident whose child attends Blanche Reynolds [elementary] School located next to the church, has lived in the neighborhood since it opened its doors in 2008. She has seen the area change over the years and is adamant that if it weren’t for Harbor Church and Operation Embrace, her neighborhood wouldn’t see nearly the high number of vagrants. She, along with other neighbors, said that several groups of four and five have been seen wandering the neighborhood, but she also said that they aren’t necessarily the people the Harbor Church helps.
“It’s not about who goes in, but who they turn away and who is remaining in the neighborhood afterward,” Underwood said.
LeeAnn Kaulbars has been volunteering at the Harbor Church for two years and, over the last few months, her son, Zachary has joined her. They both said it was an eye-opening experience and honor to help the homeless.
After a brief visit to the church, it was easy to see that those getting services aren’t what Ventura residents have come to think of as typical homeless people. During one random lunchtime service, a dozen or so people sat scattered around the dining hall. Most wore clean clothes and shoes and looked well-groomed. They looked like any average person one would meet in public, though nearby neighbors say that those who fit a more stereotypical description, those who are unkempt, pushing carts and wearing numerous layers of clothes, come to the breakfast service and tend to linger around outside the church after breakfast has been served. The homeless are not allowed reentry on the same day, should they leave before the lunch service.
Jim Calhoun, who lives directly across from the church and has two children at Blanche Reynolds, has seen a lot of problems associated with the church.
“They feed at 8-9 in the morning when moms are walking kids to school. The homeless hang out in the park and are walking around in the streets until they can get fed. Most parents — everyone I talked to at least — not one feels comfortable walking around the school,” Calhoun said, noting that his wife also gets gawked at and that he has seen several arrests.
Calhoun and Underwood have also heard stories that include a neighbor who found hypodermic needles in the front yard. Another incident, a homeless man came up to a person’s front door, asking for money. Yet another incident, a man had fallen asleep by the fence that encloses the school. Children began throwing food at the homeless man. He awoke upset and began to climb the fence to get to the children. No one was hurt but it certainly frightened the children, another neighbor said. More recently, last Friday night, Dec. 14, at 10:51 p.m., directly across from the church, a homeless man knocked on the door of a neighbor, and when the woman answered the door the man punched her in the face. She kicked him and was able to close the door and call the police. The man fled the scene. No reason for the attack has come to light by this reporter’s deadline. According to law enforcement officials, the attack is rare, given that most homeless people typically choose to find a resting place by that time of night.
While some contend things have only gotten worse over the years, others disagree. Due to the sensitive nature of the situation, one neighbor asked to remain anonymous. He said that when Harbor first opened its doors, things were tough. Homeless people were sleeping in the park and one was caught pounding beer in front of the church. He saw a woman in the park who was so intoxicated on some substance that she was acting like someone one might see at Woodstock. He noted, however, that with every instance, the church staff and volunteers have taken care of the problem. And they continue to come when called. He also noted that the police, who had been eager to provide help with any issues with the church, have since backed off; it correlated with budget cuts in 2009 and 2010.
Dr. Sid Ward, executive pastor at Harbor Church, has been fighting an uphill battle for the last year and a half since he has been on staff, unbeknown to him, about the rumors of what’s going on at the church. Tales have filtered through the neighborhood, including that the intake process doesn’t protect against convicted sexual predators and that homeless people are being shipped from Camarillo to the church and that apparently the church has contracted with the city for payment.
With regard to the intake process, Ward said that every single person who is allowed entry to the church must have a valid California ID or driver’s license. If any given person doesn’t have an ID, he or she is denied entry but given a voucher to obtain one from the DMV. If a person changes his or her name upon entry, services are denied. Their names are then added to a database where they are compared to Megan’s Law offenders. When members of the church have come across a convicted sexual offender, each has been dealt with appropriately.
“It has happened twice so far in five years,” Gallucci said. “Neither stayed. Both of the incidents were something from a long time ago, and they were very respectful men and didn’t really have an issue. The homeless are so often misunderstood. We have a heart to try to help people and broken people.”
With regard to the homeless being shipped in from Camarillo, Ward, who was rather surprised at the idea, sought answers. The only thing he could find had to do with volunteers associated with IABA, the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis, which is based in Camarillo. Three to four volunteers with varying degrees of mental challenges work in the kitchen two to three times a week. And they take the public bus from different parts of Ventura. They don’t actually come from the Camarillo office. He also found that a mother-son volunteer team lives in Camarillo. The church, however, does have two pickup points in the city of Ventura: under the bridge at Sanjon and at a particular point along the railroad tracks. The homeless are bused in at around 8:30 a.m. and returned to the same spots at around 1:30 p.m. The bus from Camarillo still remains a mystery.
Furthermore, residents voiced their concerns about the homeless lingering around after the breakfast and lunchtime services. Ward said two volunteers are sent through the neighborhood after the lunchtime service to clear any homeless out of the neighborhood, or else they would be denied services in the future. Calhoun, however, said he has seen the volunteers sitting outside the church after lunch but hasn’t seen them trekking the neighborhood.
When questioned about whether or not Harbor Church and Operation Embrace were in the appropriate location, Ward responded with a question: “What is the right place?”
He said that no matter where one puts such an endeavor, someone will always have something to say. But he said he is mindful about the neighbor’s concerns and is available to talk with them.
James Devine, a local attorney and a resident who lives nearby the church, doesn’t agree with Ward or Gallucci. He is very adamant that Operation Embrace should not be in the neighborhood and is looking for a way to shut it down, at least the mission that attracts the homeless to his neighborhood.
“Even if it is a tenet of your faith, you can’t develop an attractive nuisance without taking any responsibility for it,” Devine said.
Devine, who recently had his car keyed with the large letters FU, which he thinks was done by a homeless person, said he felt the conditional use permit (CUP) didn’t allow Harbor Church to operate the soup kitchen. Gallucci was confident the CUP covered the church’s mission.
“We are a church and everything we do is a part of our religion’s expression,” Gallucci said. “We have a right to operate as a church, and it is a part of our religion’s expression on how we practice our faith. We are not an agency. The homeless, they are a part of our church community. Our mission falls under our First Amendment freedom of expression and gathering as a church what we really believe and what we stand on.”
Devine has ordered a number of documents from the city, as well as the police department, with regard to the operations of the church.
Gallucci feels, though, that much of the frustration has to come to a boiling point right now because of the Ventura River bottom sweep that displaced dozens of homeless and many of them were flowing into the neighborhoods across the city.
“We have had a great increase. When the city decided to throw everyone out of the river bottom, we grew by up to 50 percent,” Gallucci said. “A few people that are concerned, it just speaks to the need, to a major problem, to that. We need to care for the broken and needy.”
Rob Orth, director of social services at the local Salvation Army in downtown Ventura, used to head Project Understanding located off Ventura Avenue, which offers a variety of services to homeless people. As the head of the organization, he said that in order to carry out the mission to help the homeless, he also had to collaborate with the neighbors and address their concerns.
“I’ll speak for Project Understanding. My concern for our neighbors is the same as for his neighbors. How is it affecting quality of life to the greater neighborhood? As a minister of the Lord, we are here to serve everyone. If what I have created is becoming problematic for this area, where do we move it to?” Orth said. “We really changed to better assist everyone. It is two-sided. We are better neighbors and we can better assist people that we are helping. We have [a] massive [number of] people come eat and be, and we shifted to Homeless2Home and are working very directly to take the homeless situation to housing. It’s still going on, and there is a process.”
In a recent e-mail exchange between an anonymous Midtown resident and neighbor of the church and Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Trudy Arriaga, the neighbor had addressed all the concerns and problematic situations associated with the Harbor Church. The neighbor also addressed Arriaga’s apparent support of the latest endeavor to offer theological coursework for the homeless and any member of the church via The Urban Ministry Institute Ventura, or TUMI Ventura. In the article in the VCStar, she states:
“We’ve worked in partnership with the church and are honored to share spaces that validate our children and those facing hard times,” she said. “If they are offering educational opportunities, we’ll support that. We applaud the job they do.”
In the e-mail response, Arriaga said: “My response was that we are an educational institution and always applaud education regardless of the recipient.”
She continues, “As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Paul Jablonowski was the principal for the school for six years and I did check with him. He reported that in his term as principal, they had a few concerns that were immediately addressed by the leadership of the church. It is a fact that the church has shared their space with VUSD as we have held meetings in their chapel, which was my reference to their partnership. We also have students at the secondary level who have volunteered their services at the church. Mr. Jablonowski reported that he had a very good relationship with the church leaders and this was my frame of reference.
“I was not speaking on behalf of the neighborhood or issues that you may have as neighbors. That is certainly not my place as I have no knowledge of your experiences. I can only give factual statements of the experience of VUSD as per the leader of the school, which is what I was asked to do in the article.”
She also noted that there are 297 students in the Ventura Unified School District who are homeless, and that she feels a responsibility not to say or think anything disparaging about those without shelter.
Officials from the city of Ventura continue to work with neighbors of the church with regard to the conditional use permit and the zoning where the church is located to be sure that there is compliance. Ward stated that if any neighbor would care to talk to him or see what is going on at the church, it is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or he can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. For more information, go to www.theharbor.us or call 650-7422.