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More Women, Kids Found Using Shelters

An annual one-day survey shows a rise in the newly homeless in Ventura County. Most cite job loss, divorce and domestic violence.

May 25, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

A one-day snapshot of homelessness in Ventura County shows that the problem is becoming more entrenched, as the ranks of that population swell with women, children and longtime county residents.

Of the 437 people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing when the survey was conducted earlier this year, more than half were women and children, according to a report by the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition.

In a similar survey three years ago, women and children made up less than a third of the 300 people in homeless shelters.

In addition, more than half of the homeless population this year reported living in the county for at least a decade, and half said they had been homeless less than six months, pointing to a rising tide of newly homeless.

"The combination of a very weak economy and a very tight and high housing market has made this just a huge challenge," said Karol Schulkin, head of the county's homeless services program. "In terms of solutions, we're just not getting ahead of the need."

The survey was conducted Feb. 27 at eight emergency shelters and nine transitional housing facilities from Ojai to Thousand Oaks.

It was the seventh year the coalition has conducted the head count as a way of providing insight into the homeless population and spurring solutions to the problems that end up pushing people onto the streets.

About a third of those counted reported suffering from mental illness, 29% were physically disabled and 37% said they had been homeless two years or longer.

More than 100 respondents said a loss of work put them out on the street, while 28 blamed divorce and 22 said they were fleeing domestic violence.

Forty-eight said they became homeless after evictions, highlighting the need to build affordable housing in a county where rents have skyrocketed in recent years and the vacancy rate is nearly nonexistent.

The survey noted that the average cost for a two-bedroom rental in Ventura County has climbed to $1,300 a month. A person earning minimum wage would have to work as many 120 hours a week just to pay the rent, the report said.

"The image in people's minds of the guy standing at the freeway offramp is not the face of homelessness in Ventura County," said Cathy Brudnicki, a Thousand Oaks-based insurance agent who serves as president of the homeless and housing coalition.

"We are dealing with more families and more women and kids, and part of that has do with issues of affordable housing," she said. "We have an awful lot of people living doubled-up and tripled-up in places not meant for human habitation. People need to understand that we've counted 400 people, but really that's just the tip of the iceberg."

That said, homeless advocates say much progress is being made.

Earlier this month, the Ventura City Council approved the purchase of land for a new, year-round homeless shelter to be operated by the nonprofit Project Understanding. A similar effort is underway in Oxnard, and community members in Thousand Oaks have begun meeting to discuss housing needs.

"The issue isn't whether there are going to be homeless people in our communities, it's what are we going to do about them," said Rick Pearson, Project Understanding's executive director and a longtime proponent of a permanent shelter in Ventura.

"There's still work to do ... but I think we've taken some real decent steps forward."

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