VENTURA — The shantytown pokes out through the brush and the tall grass of a dusty riverbed, an old squatters camp swollen over the years by hard luck and hard times into Ventura County's largest homeless community.
It stretches more than two miles up the Ventura River, unfolding in a collection of plywood shacks and nylon tents, housing as many as 200 people.
Homeless advocates say this vagabond village is perhaps the last of its kind in Southern California, a stubborn holdout in a day when homeless encampments elsewhere are being banished and bulldozed.
Those who work closest with the homeless have argued for years that something should be done about this place called the "river bottom." But the money for any alternative has never been forthcoming.
Now, however, the homeless advocates have been joined by a new coalition of environmentalists and political leaders in Ventura who say they plan to push harder for a solution to what they see as a monument to decades of community apathy.
"The absence of direction is allowing this to continue," said Ventura City Councilwoman Rosa Less Measures, who is leading the push to pull the homeless out of the riverbed. "It's a depressing, discouraging, sad omen for our society, and I'm committed to doing what I can to make the changes where all will benefit."
Measures wants to create a campground where the homeless can live and receive help from social service agencies. At the same time, she wants the city to adopt a policy of "zero tolerance" toward camping on all other public property, in effect outlawing river bottom camps.
Some homeless advocates worry that the new campground proposal could turn out to be little more than talk. And beyond the question of whether a new campground will ever become reality is the nagging question of how river bottom residents feel about the issue.
"Most people down here probably won't go for it," said Craig, a 32-year-old Burbank native who lives in an oil field lean-to on the shantytown's north end. "I'll stay down here as long as they let me. If I could live this way the rest of my life, I would."
From a distance, it could be mistaken for a city dump; thick piles of garbage growing up here and there, rusted shopping carts buried deep in the white sand floor. Packs of dogs roam the place, picking through the squalor.
This place has been a friend to the homeless since at least World War II, a hobo jungle created by railroad tramps below the point where the Southern Pacific train trestle straddles the Ventura River.
Today, homeless advocates say the community is as large as it has ever been, accounting for roughly 10% of the estimated 2,000 homeless people in Ventura County.
Theirs is a primitive place: No electricity. No bathrooms. No running water. Only a river polluted by decades of use as a latrine.
And yet, despite its tired and tattered appearance, there is order in this jungle. Troublemakers are unwelcome and have been run out in the past. No one person or group rules the river bottom, but folks look out for each other. There is a sense of community and a code of conduct.
An old-timer named Pack Rat is the self-proclaimed "Chief of the River Bottom," having made his home in this overgrown nether world for more than half of his 55 years.
"I've lived on every inch of this place," he says, his home now staked out in the yawning gap between two concrete slabs holding up the Main Street bridge.
His real name is Ray Mahala, and he landed at the river bottom when it was primarily home to railroad tramps. He drifted upstream over the years as the city pushed the settlers out of the river mouth.
He has become an institution around this place, in his knee-high leather boots, leather pants and jacket and his badger-skin cap.
"It's one of the few places left where a man can just lay down and live," Mahala said.
But there is a darker side to the old squatters camp.
Homeless advocates estimate that 20% to 30% of the residents are mentally ill, and maybe half have substance abuse problems. Alcoholics, drug users and the deranged live together on the river floor with those who are simply down and out.
Police say the area has become a haven for drug use and other criminal activity, and firefighters say they are called to the river bottom at least once a week to put out runaway campfires.
But advocates say that without any alternative, the homeless village will continue to grow. Only recently, a father and his two sons, 11 and 9, joined the exodus to the homeless shantytown.
Farther upstream, Ted Edwards and Peggy Wallace are raising their 2-year-old daughter in a three-room shack piled high with toys and parenting manuals.
A long line of social workers visited the couple when they decided to raise Andrial on the river bottom. The county workers concluded that despite the family's non-traditional lifestyle, she is being raised by loving parents in a stable home.