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Council May Target River-Bottom Transients : Ventura: Housing committee's plan to force them out could be implemented in January. Three members have criticized it.

November 19, 1994|CONSTANCE SOMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A proposal to force homeless people out of the Ventura River bottom, where some transients have lived for decades, will be considered by the Ventura City Council next week.

The council's housing committee has worked on the plan for months, hoping not only to clean out the river bottom but also to remove transients from the downtown.

The idea's test comes Monday night, when the full council is expected to vote on whether to begin moving the river-bottom homeless as early as this winter.

The three council members on the housing committee favor the plan, but three others say they have serious concerns. The seventh member, Steve Bennett, could not be reached for comment.

"People are coming up with simplistic solutions to complicated problems," Councilman Gregory L. Carson said. "It sounds like another Band-Aid approach, and it doesn't solve the long-range problem of the homeless."

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Mayor Tom Buford said the proposal raises serious civil rights issues.

"There are limits to what a city can do to remove citizens . . . just because they don't look like what certain people would like," Buford said.

Moving the homeless from the river has strong support from many downtown merchants, who complain that the homeless disturb their customers. But some advocates for the homeless say the plan will not give some river dwellers' another place to go.

"Well, it's got two sides to it, doesn't it?" said Councilman Gary Tuttle. "On the one hand, it'll clean up downtown, which I'm all for. But the other side . . . is it has a tendency to look ugly."

The housing committee--made up of council members Jack Tingstrom, Rosa Lee Measures and Jim Monahan--has crafted the proposal since spring. At first, the committee worked with homeless advocates and police on a plan that would give the transients a roof over their heads and access to crucial social services.

But this fall, committee members decided that Ventura could not afford to pay for a campground. As it now stands, the proposal would move the estimated 200 squatters in three phases over about six months.

The first phase, which could begin in January, includes advertising housing and social services and notifying river-bottom residents that they must soon leave. Ventura Police Capt. Randy Adams said the entire effort, which would include a downtown storefront to monitor the homeless, could cost up to $200,000 in its first year.

However, City Atty. Pete Bulens has warned that the city could be setting itself up for a lawsuit if it does not provide alternative housing for the squatters.

Tingstrom said he hopes to locate housing countywide, from Ojai to Thousand Oaks.

Such casual discussion about where to move the river dwellers unnerves Rick Pearson, director of Project Understanding, which provides homeless services.

"Has Ventura talked to these other jurisdictions, asked them, 'How would you feel, we're going to export our homeless people to you?' " he said.

Pearson worked with the committee to craft the campground plan, and now he wonders where that portion of the proposal went.

"Have we given up all hope of providing anything else?" he asked.

"The city would be on shaky legal grounds to go forward without some (housing) alternatives," he said. "Do we want to get into a position of arresting people for being homeless?"

Pearson and others maintain that cleaning out the river bottom will not solve the downtown's transient problem, since panhandlers go there from all over the area.

But merchants say they are at the end of their patience. Ed Warren, who owns two restaurants downtown, said clearing the river would be a start.

"These are totally undesirable people that stink to high heaven," he said. "I've had my customers leave because they are bothering them."

Warren said he is not unsympathetic to the homeless--it's just that he has to earn a living.

"It's not something I can't tolerate," he said. "But why should I have to tolerate it?"

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