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Homeless 'Shadow Women' Haunt Streets of Oxnard


For most of the last three years, ever since she lost her last part-time job, Olga Tarver has roamed the streets of Oxnard.

Tarver, 48, has haunted the back steps of small shops, careful to avoid early-arriving business owners, usually rising at 4 a.m. each day to find a new location where she can bed down the next night.

Once married, she has a son who lives in the area, but whom she never sees. And she has a sister who often searches her out to make sure that she is still alive.

"That's my sister," she said recently, as a woman pulled up to the curb at Oxnard's Plaza Park and called out her name.

"She feels sorry for me. She wants me to come live with her, but you know how it is. You get down. You have no home. No husband. You feel like a failure."

Tarver recently found temporary shelter in a friend's rundown shack. So, for the moment, she is off the streets. And she has begun accepting help from social service officials who hope to eventually provide some permanent housing solution for her.

For the moment, however, she remains one of Ventura County's 250 to 550 "shadow women."

Single and homeless, they usually are divorced, middle-aged and so antisocial that they have withdrawn into themselves except to reach out for the essentials of life. Many are mentally handicapped.

Women such as Tarver also make up the category of the homeless that is most forgotten when social services are handed out, officials say.

Although she is welcome at soup kitchens in Oxnard, none of the city's shelters have room for her or other single street women, social workers say.

That is because there are relatively few single women on the streets--about one out of every seven homeless people in the county, officials say. And homeless women are more reluctant to seek help.

Shelter managers say they give priority to men or to mothers with children because there are more of them, but that single women represent the most desperate segment of a needy population.

"They're the most vulnerable of all the homeless groups" because there is no shelter for them, said Carol Roberg, who helps run the Ventura County Rescue Mission in Oxnard. "There's specific things for battered women, women with children, but there's nothing for single women."

The rescue mission had planned to open a women's dormitory this fall for a dozen single women.

But after a fire gutted the mission's 68-bed men's shelter last month, officials have concentrated on rebuilding. And Roberg now says the women's dormitory is little more than a pipe dream.

The Zoe Christian Center in Oxnard used to accept homeless single women, but the cash-poor shelter recently stopped accepting anyone who cannot afford to pay rents beginning at $150 a month.

"At this time, there's no place for single women," said the Rev. Fred Judy, a founder of the center. "It's really a bad situation."

Even the Salvation Army, which provides motel-room vouchers, cannot afford to help homeless women for more than two nights a month.

"After the second night, I tell them, it's only two nights a month. You have to get out in a couple of nights and find a place to stay," volunteer Margie Zamora said. "Sometimes they're out on the beach, in the park, in the car."

Nancy Nazario, coordinator of the homeless ombudsman program for the county, estimates that there are between 1,850 and 4,000 homeless people in Ventura County, and that single women account for 14% of that number.

Nazario is one of two county social workers who locate the homeless and find shelter for them. Currently, 10 of Nazarios's 40 cases involve single women.

Single homeless women are often called "shadow women" by researchers, Nazario said, because they tend to stay away from shelters and welfare offices.

"Some of them are on disability or on general relief," she said. "Some of them, I don't know how they get by. They just get by on handouts."

Nazario said that many women such as Tarver are divorced and mentally handicapped. Their downward spiral came after divorces, when they lost their main source of income and could not support themselves.

"Usually when we get the single homeless women between age 40 and 60, there's a disability there," she said. "We may not see it at first, but it's there."

Tarver fits the type almost perfectly. She speaks clearly and dresses fastidiously.

In gray sweat pants, tennis shoes and a white T-shirt, she walks the streets of Oxnard looking more like a middle-aged mother out for a morning stroll than a homeless person. She carries a red backpack and a plastic bottle full of tap water.

Tarver said she dropped out of Oxnard High School before graduating, married and raised a son. She survived for a while after her divorce by holding odd jobs.

Until three years ago, she pressed clothes for $5 an hour. But back problems forced her to quit, and since then she has been on the streets.

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