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Ventura County

Homeless Find Refuge in Storm

About half a dozen people spend a rainy night at the Simi Valley shelter. Other centers in the county are set to open Dec. 1.

November 09, 2002|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Earlier this week, 36-year-old Brenda was sleeping on the ground in Thousand Oaks. But Thursday night, as rain pounded away, Brenda spent a warm, dry night at a homeless shelter in Simi Valley.

The city's shelter network, known as PADS -- Public Action to Deliver Shelter -- opened for the season Nov. 1, and operators are gearing up to help more people as rains and cold weather continue.

A similar system of using local churches for emergency winter shelters will begin Dec. 1 in the Thousand Oaks area and in the Ojai Valley.

In the western end of the county, Ventura and Oxnard have taken turns opening a National Guard armory as a winter shelter for several years. This year, it will open Dec. 1 in Ventura. Most shelters operate through late March.

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people are homeless in the county, said Cathy Brudnicki, chairwoman of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition.

Brenda, who declined to give her last name, didn't know the Simi Valley shelter at a Knights of Columbus hall was open earlier this week, when she found herself exhausted and unable to afford a motel.

"I slept on the dirt. It was the first time in my whole life I ever did that," she said. "It was definitely humiliating. But I hadn't slept for a day and a half and was so fatigued I had to sleep somewhere."

When she found the Simi Valley shelter, "it was a total relief, because I knew I could sleep here and I knew it was safe," she said.

Twenty-year-old Leia was also at the Simi Valley shelter as the season's first storm arrived, landing there after a fight with her mother.

"It's a lifesaver," said Leia, who also requested anonymity. "Otherwise I'd be out in the cold feeling down and depressed. I'm glad to have a place to go to every night."

About half a dozen homeless people showed up Thursday night, despite the rain, said John Purvis, who coordinates the PADS program for the Samaritan Center, a morning drop-in center where homeless people can get a meal, shower and receive mail.

Purvis guessed that a lack of transportation was responsible for the low numbers Thursday, but that more people will soon find the shelter.

Last winter, an average of 20 to 22 people showed up a night, and about 2,500 overnight stays were logged over five months.

Though the program has been around for years, Purvis said he still struggles to find churches willing to lend a room one night a week large enough for two dozen people sleeping on mats and cots. The shelter now rotates at four churches and a Knights of Columbus hall.

"The churches are far more protective of their buildings and campuses than you'd imagine," said Purvis, who arrives at each site for the 8 p.m. nightly check-in. Many of those needing overnight shelter are dealing with substance abuse problems, have mental disorders or have issues with authority figures, he said.

Help of Ojai, a social services agency that runs a seniors center, coordinates that city's shelter program. Spokeswoman Jessica Murray said the agency accommodated at least 136 homeless people last year.

With a limping economy and welfare benefits soon to expire for those who have been jobless more than five years, Murray thinks use of the shelter may increase this year.

"Working at a minimum-wage job in this county is not going to pay the rent," she said. "Even working two minimum-wage jobs might not be enough to afford what's available."

In Ventura, the budget for running the armory, at 1270 Arundell Ave., is nearly $314,000, said the city's Nicole Doner. Of that amount, Ventura put in nearly $58,000, Oxnard $43,000 and the county $16,000. Camarillo donated $10,000 and Port Hueneme is expected to pay $2,500. Most of the balance is from state and federal funds for emergency shelters.

Meanwhile, the Oxnard Rescue Mission, which only serves men, provides 60 beds year-round.

The county Homeless and Housing Coalition sponsors an annual survey that monitors those using local shelters.

Last winter, a survey found that 55% of shelter residents were women and children, 62% were using a shelter for the first time, about 53% had been homeless for six months or less and one in 10 were 55 years old or older.

Fifty-two percent were white and nearly a third were Latino. More than a third had been in Ventura County at least 25 years.

"People think of the homeless person as the guy on the side of a freeway with a sign, but that's not the real face of homelessness in Ventura County," the coalition's Brudnicki said. "It's someone who's been here for a while who finds themselves in an unfortunate circumstance."

What causes a person to become homeless initially varies, according to the survey. Losing a job was cited by 31%, followed by 18% who were evicted, 18% with a mental illness, 18% facing a drug or alcohol problem and 11% who cited a divorce.

Karol Schulkin, homeless coordinator for the county's Human Services Agency, said the working poor have been hit hard and that even a temporary setback could push them into homelessness.

"The use of food pantries -- requests have been greater this year -- makes us think the shelters will get more people. But we won't know until the doors actually open," she said.

*

Times staff photographer Mel Melcon contributed to this report.

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