Homeless Workshop draws interested parties

Homeless Workshop held at the Derby Club.

by Sheli Ellsworth

More than 250 people gathered for the City Council’s Community Homeless Workshop held at the Derby Club on April 18. Attendees worked in groups to complete exercises designed to define, understand and help the homeless community. Post-its were used to chronicle past efforts to help the homeless population and discussions focused on issues like mental illness, addiction, lack of affordable housing and the impact of homelessness on the community.

Attendee Dave Grau commented, “We seem to have the ‘have nots’ in every community and it is easy to forget about them because we don’t want to see it.” Behavioral Health Department Director Elaine Crandell has attended several homeless workshops and noted the economic impact of homelessness, “All the studies say that homelessness affects things like tourism and Ventura relies on tourism.”

Ventura is second only to Oxnard in the number of homeless in the community. According to research from the Ventura Community Development Department, Oxnard has about 600 homeless people while Ventura numbers 334 homeless. Simi Valley places third with about 200 homeless while Thousand Oaks has 83. Fillmore and Moorpark each have 7 homeless of record. The upshot is that the City of Ventura has 41 services available to help the homeless community while Oxnard has 31. According to county reports, 118 places in Ventura County offer homeless services like shelter, food, clothing, counseling, hygiene, medical care, transportation and others.

Several attendees commented that increased coordination between the different agencies to include all private and faith-based organizations might improve the distribution of homeless services. Perhaps a central council or agency could coordinate efforts of the entire community?

Other discussions involved the types of homelessness. Homelessness due to the loss of a job may be different from the type of homelessness due to mental and physical challenges. According to the VCDD, “In 2015, City of Ventura had 239 unsheltered individuals. 56% or 134 were chronically homeless individuals, which is 41% greater than the national average.” Of those who are chronically homeless, I learned that 30% usually have a mental illness or substance abuse. Councilman Neal Andrews commented, “One thing I have come to know through the years is that many people who are homeless only want help on their own terms.”

Workshop attendees asked each other if this type of individualized help was feasible. “If a person is only willing to accept a certain kind of help so they can continue to be homeless, how far should a community go to accommodate them?” one person commented. “Does our moral obligation extend to people who embrace the homeless lifestyle?” Another attendee said that in her experience many homeless want be in a particular area.

One problem in sheltering Ventura’s homeless is that zoning does not allow overnight sheltering and other services at the same location. Time consuming and costly city permits also slow the availability of shelters.

At the conclusion of the Workshop Mayor Erik Nasarenko made a motion that would allow the city to forgo some of the zoning/permitting process. The motion passed 5-2. City Attorney Gregory Diaz said the motion does not change zoning, but allows the city staff to examine the issue further.

Councilman Mike Tracy made a motion that no changes occur until the community’s homeless workshop recommendations could be considered at the June council meeting. Tracy’s motion failed, 5-2. Mike Tracy and Jim Monahan voted against the motion since homeowners had not had the chance to weigh in.

Councilman Neal Andrews made a motion asking city staff to consider strategies developed by the council’s subcommittee on homelessness several years ago. Andrew’s motion failed, 6-1.  The City Council is hoping to have some of the workshop’s ideas and observations organized, ready for discussion at the June 13 City Council meeting.

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