by Randal Beeman
It’s only 10:30 AM but “Steve” and “Carol,” a couple in their early 40s, have finished off the better part of a 12 pack of beer just off the corner of Main Street and Ventura Avenue. They toss their empty cans into the flower beds of Mission Plaza townhomes and yell at a friend as he passes by on his bicycle. The friend doubled back and they offer him a beer pulled from a bag hidden behind them. A few hours later a few blocks away a small group of young people gather under the bridge just yards from the sign and artwork welcoming visitors to the City of Ventura. Three of them have their pant legs rolled up and are injecting what is presumably heroin.
For people who live and work in downtown Ventura – indeed downtowns across California – the presence of the homeless, and the pathologies accompanying substance abuse and mental health problems, is a normal part of daily life. Pleas for a handout are as ubiquitous as the trash that piles up around the Mission Plaza Shopping Center. Though some of the down and out are aggressive panhandlers, many are polite and even upbeat, amicably greeting friends and playing cat and mouse with security guards.
While many cities have far greater numbers of street people and panhandlers than Ventura, stories about the homeless problem and emotional letters to the editor on the subject are omnipresent in the local media. Several speakers at the January 9th meeting of the Ventura City Council decried the lack of affordable housing in the city.
Some individuals and groups have accused the Ventura Police Department of being overly tolerant, even exacerbating the homeless problem through deliberate neglect of their duties. Conversely, reformers claim the police are too harsh with the homeless and they accuse the city is failing this vulnerable population by not addressing the issue on a long term and comprehensive level.
Sgt. Jerry Foreman leads the Ventura Police Department’s Downtown Task Force. Foreman recently sat for a brief interview to discuss the VPD strategy as well as some of the challenges in dealing with the homeless problem in Ventura.
There are many misconceptions the public harbors regarding the homeless. Foreman emphatically stated that the police “can’t arrest their way out of the problem.” Recent court rulings and voter initiatives have limited the power of the police and courts. For example, a drunk and disorderly charge used to earn up to a 120 day sentence, now it’s 30 days, usually reduced to 15 but with time served and overcrowded jails a public intoxication case might stay locked up for 4 days or less.
The courts can no longer cajole offenders into treatment if they are caught with drugs due to Proposition 47 making use and possession of hard drugs a misdemeanor. With no threat of a long jail stay the leverage to get addicts and alcoholics into treatment is lessened. Foreman confirmed what other homeless experts suggest: Funding to house the mentally ill has been cut for decades, and many people on the street resist coming into shelters because of the rules and conditions involved.
Police rarely deal with the “episodic homeless.” Folks who find themselves temporarily broke and families in need are usually taken care of by public and private social service organizations. Day to day contact, especially in downtown Ventura, is with the “vagrant homeless.” Instead of using a confrontational approach, stated the Navy veteran, law enforcement and their partners in Ventura prefer to guide the homeless into long term help instead of short term incarceration.
When it comes to crimes like public intoxication, urinating in public, sleeping in vehicles, and so forth, the VPD has a policy called “assistance based enforcement” where the offender is cited with a ticket and offered contact with social services. If they acquire five citations in a calendar year (including at least one in the last month) the individual will be arrested and enter the Chronic Offender Program. While there are not enough mental health caseworkers to send to every incident, the goal of the City of Ventura is to have all officers and staff exposed to Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), and that anyone seeking help gets connected to a service agency.
Foreman sympathizes with critics on both sides of the argument. He notes that some detractors want more arrests. A law and order man who understands plight of property owners and families worried about this issue, Foreman acknowledges the constitutional and ethical limits to what the police can do in a free and democratic society.
Working his beat in downtown, Sgt. Foreman frequently encounters homeless people with immense intelligence and potential. He suggests that while it might make us feel good or fulfill our faith requirements when we offer a few dollars or some food and clothes to a street person, Foreman suggests we let the “experts” at the Salvation Army, Project Understanding, Safe Sleep, the Turning Point Foundation and other groups channel public generosity into more sustainable solutions for the homeless of Ventura.