Pictured: Homeless panel discussion in Thousand Oaks. 

by Kateri Wozny

The City of Thousand Oaks hosted a community conversation centered around the topic of homelessness at the Civic Arts Plaza on Sunday, Sept. 22.

Mayor Rob McCoy and Councilmember Claudia Bill-de la Peña (both of whom are members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness) joined Assistant City Manager Ingrid Hardy, City Attorney Tracy Noonan, Police Chief Tim Hagel, Manna Executive Director Jennifer Schwabauer, Harbor House Executive Director Denise Cortes and Ventura County Continuum of Care (VC CoC) Program Manager Tara Carruth to provide a broad overview of what homelessness looks like in Thousand Oaks.

“For the past two years, we have seen anger and frustration coming from the residents on social media,” Bill-de la Peña said. “We cannot continue to ignore this problem and address this collectively.”

Hagel said the most common question he gets asked is why other California cities have laws against the homeless sleeping in public spaces.

“Because it’s illegal and it’s not constitutional,” Hagel said. “With legalities, we have to comply with the 9th Circuit Court.”

Last September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a homeless individual cannot be prosecuted for sleeping on public property if they have nowhere else to do so. The Eighth Amendment also states that is would be cruel and unusual.

In June, Noonan said that the city adopted an ordinance allowing homeless individuals to sleep on public property without pitching a tent between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. He also stated that panhandling is not illegal. “Filing criminal charges will never solve this issue,” he said. “It’s not a crime to be homeless.”

According to Hagel, the city has 271 people who are homeless (out of 1,669 countywide, based on VC CoC’s 2019 Homeless Count report). Hardy explained that the latest homeless count increased in the city for the first time in 2019, with an additional 103 people becoming homeless. Thousand Oaks has the fourth lowest homeless population in the county and 43 percent are experiencing homelessness for the first time. Homelessness has increased due to rent increases, limited vacancies and impacts from wildfires and other local disasters.

“We have a complex humanitarian crisis,” Hardy said.

“The number one reason we are seeing an increase is housing affordability,” Carruth said. “It is over $1,000 a month to rent a room. Someone who has a fixed income, disability or minimum wage is very challenged to find an affordable housing unit.”

Hagel said that the Thousand Oaks Police Department currently has two officers in the vulnerable populations unit that focus on enforcement and social services. “They know each and every person that is homeless,” Hagel said. “We partner with social service providers and assist the community to the same standard of any other resident.”

Social service organizations Manna Conejo Valley Food Bank and Harbor House encouraged the audience to donate food or money or volunteer their time. Cortes said Harbor House sees between 250 to 300 homeless people a week — ranging from high school students to elders — to provide emergency assistance, case management and hot meals.

“Homelessness is incredibly expensive,” Cortes said. “They are living in cars or most do not have cars or bikes and have been walking. They sleep on parks, benches or a quiet, safe place.”

McCoy said the city will continue to do its role in ending homelessness and encouraged the community to become involved.

“We have the highest poverty and highest homelessness as a city that has autonomy,” McCoy said. “We need to protect our constituents and have a process.”

For more information regarding homelessness in Thousand Oaks, visit www.toaks.org/homeslessness.