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Group Seeks Navy Site to Offer Services to Homeless : Port Hueneme: Advocates want to create one-stop center offering host of programs on strip of surplus land. But plan faces competing proposals.


Homeless advocates say they will seek federal permission to convert a U. S. Navy laboratory at the mouth of Port Hueneme Harbor into a one-stop clearinghouse providing housing and a variety of social services to Ventura County's homeless.

Advocates say the need for such a center will increase its chances of becoming reality, even though it is proposed for an oceanfront strip of surplus Navy land targeted for port expansion and other economic development efforts.

For three months, a coalition of nonprofit groups has been drafting a proposal to lease 13 of the 78 buildings on the 33-acre parcel from the federal government.

The lease price is not yet determined, but would be paid with state and federal help.

As envisioned, the center would offer job training, drug and alcohol counseling, medical care, help for victims of domestic violence and a host of other services.

No place in Ventura County offers such a range of programs under one roof.

"For all these services to be at one site makes a lot of sense to the person who is homeless," said Karen Ingram, vice president of Lutheran Social Services of Southern California, which is spearheading the conversion effort.

"Our goal, by having a continuum of services at one site, is to make it easier for homeless people to get the services they need and to get the help they need."

The proposal was conceived after the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory in Port Hueneme was targeted last year for closure during the third round of nationwide base closures and realignments.

That facility is in the process of shutting down and moving onto the sprawling Naval Construction Battalion Center to the north.

At the same time, groups interested in acquiring the Navy land have been lining up with proposals for the property.

Cal State University, the Oxnard Union High School District and several other agencies have expressed interest in the land. Most recently, the city of Port Hueneme and the Oxnard Harbor District agreed to try to jointly acquire the parcel in an effort to expand the regional port and boost economic opportunities there.

For a time, it appeared that the homeless coalition had them all beaten.

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 gave homeless organizations priority on all surplus federal property. The federal law requires surplus land to be offered first to other federal agencies before being offered to local homeless groups.

In this case, no federal agency stepped up to claim the Navy property so the coalition would have had first crack at it.

But under an amendment to that law signed last week by President Clinton, military bases will now be exempt from the Homeless Assistance Act.

Now the homeless coalition, which has no formal name, will have to compete with other interested groups for the property. And instead of the coalition dealing directly with federal officials to acquire the land, it will have to deal with a local committee overseeing the reuse of the surplus Navy land.

The U. S. Department of Defense still has the final say over who gets the land.

"It changes the rules midstream," Ingram said. "But we've got what we feel is a very comprehensive package. I am still very hopeful that the needs of the homeless in this county can be met."

But a local committee overseeing reuse of the land has already expressed concerns about turning over that property to the homeless.

Tom Figg--Port Hueneme's community development director and coordinator for the committee, made up of city officials, civic leaders and homeless advocates--said the panel is looking at developing economic opportunities on the 33-acre parcel.

"Economics figure very prominently into our reuse plan," Figg said. "We are very much land-poor . . . and we can little afford to squander the few remaining economic development opportunities that we have."

Figg noted that even with the amendment to the McKinney Act, the needs of the homeless must still be addressed in community reuse plans. And he said the committee stands ready to fulfill that obligation.

Just two months ago, Figg said the committee fashioned a proposal to fund homeless programs by forming a redevelopment area on the surplus land.

Under redevelopment law, 20% of the tax increment generated by a redevelopment project must be set aside to benefit low- and moderate-income residents. The tax increment is the increased tax paid on redevelopment land as its value increases. Figg said some or all of that set aside could pay for services for the homeless.

"The reason we came up with the redevelopment concept is to allow the city to proceed with the highest and best use of this property," Figg said. "We've been trying to work and address this issue in a very rational and very humanistic manner."

Despite the offer, advocates for the homeless say acquisition of land for homeless programs is just as important as money to run them.

"The homeless need a place where, with their very marginal incomes, they can afford to live and where they can be safe," said Mary Ann Decaen, community services coordinator for Catholic Charities. "We just really have to sell that idea to those who may have another option for potential use of that property."

The coalition pitching the multi-service center plan is made up of Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, Interface Children, Family Services of Ventura County and Khepera House, a Ventura-based drug and alcohol treatment center.

Plans for the homeless service center are still sketchy, and coalition members are uncertain how many of Ventura County's estimated 2,000 to 3,000 homeless people the center would be able to serve.

The local committee overseeing reuse of the surplus land is scheduled to have its plan completed by early next year. The Defense Department is expected to decide who gets the land in early 1996.

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