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Heartbreak Hotel : Zoe Christian Center's Eviction Leaves 50 Residents Exiled on Main Street

November 23, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was three days before Thanksgiving, and the homeless population in Ventura was just a little bigger.

For almost two years, the Hamilton Hotel on Main Street had served as one of the few refuges for the homeless in Ventura.

But the poverty agency managing the 30-room hotel--the Zoe Christian Center of Oxnard--was behind on the rent, and the owner had posted eviction notices.

With little warning, Zoe had responded by shutting down its hotel operation completely.

Many of the 50 or so residents of the aging, two-story structure had scattered since Zoe's pullout last week, and nobody knew where they had gone. Fewer than 20 remained, uncertain as to what might happen next.

On Monday afternoon, there was bedlam inside and outside the hotel.

In one of the hotel's dingy rooms, a woman alternately sobbed and screamed as she spoke to a friend over the telephone. The woman was drunk and hysterical. She thought she was among those soon to be evicted.

The hotel owner had hauled everything she owned to the dump, she said, sobbing. Her clothes. Her child's baby shoes. Everything.

"Bev, please help me! I love you! Please help me!" she cried, almost shouting over the phone. "My whole life--he threw it in the junkyard!"

Theresa Johnson, a welfare mother with two daughters, had allowed the woman to use her telephone. Now she watched warily as the visitor's voice rose in anger.

Johnson's two daughters, Tyese, 12, and Plunte, 10, were home from school. They joined their mother as she spoke of the madness unfolding around them.

"There's been no security since Zoe left and people have been coming off the streets and scaring the kids," Theresa Johnson said. "One man told Tyese he would kill her if she told anybody he was here.

"I've got to get out of here," she added, lowering her voice. "I'm going crazy."

As Johnson spoke, a firefighter and several uniformed Ventura police officers wandered by. Someone had started a fire in one of the vacant rooms. It had been put out quickly, and now the investigation was almost over.

Mel Cummings, owner of the Hamilton, seemed to be taking the chaos in stride, part of the job of maintaining a hotel for transient and low-income residents.

Shortly after Zoe's departure, Cummings told Johnson and other residents of the hotel who decided to stay that they could remain as tenants if they could manage future rent payments.

By early this week, Cummings had installed new managers at the hotel and was busy cleaning up the mess left by the sudden departure of Zoe.

"The majority of the showers and toilets aren't working. The electrical is off in a half-dozen rooms," he said. "I've already taken one completely filled two-ton truck to the dump."

Already, Cummings was thinking of what to do next. He is planning to sue Zoe for damages and $8,025 in monthly rental for the remaining 14 months of their lease, he said.

For Cummings, the departure of Zoe was a setback rather than a disaster. The owner of nine hotels in Ventura County primarily servicing low-income and mentally ill groups, Cummings is a veteran in landlord-tenant disputes involving homeless groups.

The latest trouble with Zoe, in fact, was the second this year involving Cummings and the Oxnard-based group. About eight months ago he evicted Zoe from another of his Ventura hotels, the Mission Hotel, for failure to pay the rent, Cummings said.

As he pondered his options on the Hamilton, Cummings said it was possible that some other agency for the homeless could be brought in to take over the hotel. If not, he would get the rooms patched up and simply rent them out to individuals.

Even as he surveyed his clean-up problems, Cummings spoke optimistically of finding a new tenant to lease the Hamilton under terms similar to those under which Zoe operated.

"I think the Salvation Army is perfect for it," he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the fast-moving events at the Hamilton, however, there were few other voices echoing any sense of optimism at all about the latest setback for homeless forces in Ventura.

Zoe officials declined comment on the group's sudden departure from the Hamilton, citing pending litigation with Cummings.

Among leaders of other poverty organizations and city officials most actively involved in finding solutions to the homeless problem in Ventura, the trouble at the Hamilton was simply the bleak conclusion to a year of disappointments.

The year had started optimistically with the city's promise of $200,000 to Zoe and another $200,000 to Project Understanding if either group could find a suitable site for a homeless shelter in Ventura.

But Project Understanding abandoned one potential hotel site on Ventura Avenue that city leaders had favored and got bogged down in unsuccessful talks with a developer for another site outside the city limits. That site was vetoed by the City Council.

Zoe, meanwhile, was having financial problems of its own that caused council leaders to express serious doubts about the group's ability to find any viable site.

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