James and Scherry Moore know what it's like to be homeless. Evicted from their Oxnard apartment, they spent four years living in an 18-foot camper, seeking refuge in state parks and struggling to feed their three children from on-again, off-again work in Ventura oil fields.
Without the Social Security checks their 8-year-old son received in 1986 after undergoing complicated heart surgery, there would have been no way for the family to finally leave their camper and return to apartment life.
The old De Anza Hotel on Ventura Avenue turned out to be far from luxury quarters and today, at $550 for a one-bedroom apartment, not all that inexpensive. But it represented stability for the Moores, who soon learned that Scherry was suffering from cancer.
That's why this hard-luck family cannot understand why anyone would want to force them from their refuge to convert the building into a shelter for the homeless. Even though they and the other low-income residents of the De Anza's 14 units have been told that they will be compensated, the idea strikes Scherry Moore as painfully ironic.
"I finally got my house and my home and my life as I want it," she said, sitting in a living room decorated with Easter bunnies, inspirational sayings and a rifle propped in the corner. "Now they're kicking us out to make room for the homeless? That's a dirty deal."
But for two nonprofit agencies, each with more than a decade of serving Ventura County's poor, it is an ambitious plan that will ultimately benefit people such as the Moores.
Project Understanding and Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. have launched efforts to raise $1.7 million to buy the hotel and use it to shelter the growing number of families joining the ranks of the county's estimated 2,000 homeless people.
The project--which faces daunting economic hurdles, public hearings and scrutiny from city officials before it can be approved--envisions the top two floors of the three-story building divided into 21 rooms with a total of 84 beds. The first floor would become a center for social service agencies.
Present residents would receive about $4,800 in relocation compensation per apartment, which leaders of the two agencies say would probably be sufficient to land them in at least equal, if not much improved, living conditions.
Tide of Gentrification
And in the process, both Project Understanding and Cabrillo hope that the shelter will help slow the tide of gentrification that is sweeping the Ventura Avenue area. Any other buyer of the building, they say, would probably raise rents and drive out most residents anyway.
"Even though it's unfortunate that we have to displace a few families, in the long run it will be a benefit to the avenue as a whole," said Rodney Fernandez, executive director of Cabrillo, which has built several housing projects for low-income farm workers. "We're trying to make a statement with this project."
The project's fate, however, could depend almost entirely on how the Ventura City Council chooses to divvy up $238,000 in funds that have been earmarked to help the homeless.
The De Anza shelter is one of four proposals being considered by city officials. Without a large chunk of the money, it would be nearly impossible to get the state and federal funds necessary to buy the $855,000 building and to pay for the extensive earthquake-proofing it requires, Fernandez said.
But Councilman Don Villeneuve, a member of the city's affordable housing subcommittee, which is preparing to make a recommendation on spending the money, said it was unrealistic for Project Understanding or Cabrillo to expect a hefty grant.
'Other Good Proposals'
"There's so many ifs and uncertainties about their project that I don't see any way the city is going to kick in the whole $238,000 on the outside possibility they can pull this together," he said. "There's other good proposals out there too."
Even though the shelter has yet to be funded, residents have found little solace.
"We're already overrun with transients now, and they want to bring in more?" said Lady Blue, owner of the Ventura Tattoo Studio, one of four commercial spaces that would have to be relocated from the first floor of the building.
"I don't think it's fair. I have a good clientele, not your typical tattoo shop trash. We're all here trying very hard to lead respectable lives," she said.
Andy Pompa, who has run his Imperial Upholstery shop in the building for 18 years, agreed. "This building is going to be a white elephant," he said. "It's foolish."
Although leaders of the two agencies conceded that it would be preferable to construct such a project without displacing anybody, they said the high cost of real estate and strict zoning requirements left them with few options.
"We realize these are real people and they have real concerns," said Thomas G. Buford, an attorney representing Cabrillo. "But you're never going to find a site where no one is inconvenienced and no one objects in this day and age."