It’s hard not to have a bleeding heart when we see men, women or families at the lowest point in their lives, knowing that we, too, could lose everything and be left with nothing more than the clothes on our backs. While some will feel compassion for these people, many will shift gears rapidly and judge the homeless by their appearance and wonder how they not only ended up that way but why so many seem to choose to stay that way. And most of the time, people walk by the homeless, sleeping in parks, begging for change, and then, just like that, out of sight, out of mind. But there are a select few that not only have compassion, but choose to help them. Enter Harbor Church.
Five years ago, Pastor Sam Galucci opened the doors of Harbor Church in Midtown Ventura, offering a special program, Operation Embrace, dedicated to helping the homeless and providing services, including meals, showers and laundry facilities. And through the ministry, a number of people have turned from destitute to stable and have found permanent housing, jobs and hope. This is a tangible and remarkable result. In fulfilling this mission, however, with so much compassion for the down and out, Galucci seems to have overlooked, even disregarded, the nearby neighbors who so desperately want Operation Embrace discontinued in their neighborhood.
The fact of the matter is that many of the people who go to Harbor Church for services are homeless, not because they just lost their jobs but because they are, for lack of a better term, miscreants and have little respect for others and the world around them — and while not all homeless people are allowed in, Operation Embrace still attracts all types and those who aren’t allowed in tend to linger in the area. Neighbors have complained about drug use and paraphernalia left in the park and on their lawns, inebriation, defecating, etc., that had not been there before Operation Embrace began. These negative behaviors impact the neighborhood, leaving those who have invested their life savings into their homes with little in the way of tools for combating these problems. Further, the crime rate has gone up 60 percent in that neighborhood since the church was established, said Assistant Police Chief Dave Wilson of the Ventura Police Department at Monday night’s Planning Commission meeting.
While we know Pastor Galucci, his staff and the volunteers mean well, if the mission is helping many but causing as many neighbors distress, wouldn’t that negate the mission? Though Galucci has the legal backing of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic and apparently First Amendment protections, the fact that so many of the neighbors are mobilizing together against the church to stop Operation Embrace is a clear indicator that the mission is being lost. With more than 150 people requesting to speak at the planning commission meeting last Monday and after four hours of discussion, the commission has yet to make a final decision about the more than 40 requirements of the conditional use permit the church applied for to keep operating. The Planning Commission will continue the hearing on the Harbor Church on Sept. 11.
None of the neighbors seems to be in favor of discontinuing the program altogether, but just in its current location. It is obvious that such services are needed in Ventura. It’s the humane thing to do, even though some would disagree on handouts for the homeless. So perhaps, instead of spending so much time fighting for the right to fulfill the ministry, choose to collaborate with neighbors in relocating the sevices to a place that bodes well, or fairly well, for everyone in the city of Ventura. This discussion should have taken place before Operation Embrace began providing services, not five years later in a contentious spirit.
We are grateful that people like Pastor Galucci exist and take on such a tremendous task of helping a populace of people who are sometimes unruly, unpredictable, but are all in desperate need of food and services. But the mission is futile if it doesn’t take into account the mental health and safety of everyone affected by it. And it’s encouraging to know that Galucci has been scouting out a new location, though nothing is certain at this time. Perhaps with some help from the neighbors, this solution will present itself sooner than later. Just be sure to get the neighbors involved in whatever new location Operation Embrace opens, lest the past is doomed to repeat itself. It’s the right thing to do.