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Defying homeless stereotype

Many Ventura County street people are white men, over 40, with a mental or drug problem, survey says.

January 17, 2008|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Seeking more efficient delivery of social services, Ventura County homeless advocates this week released the results of a survey that identifies the typical homeless person in the county as a white male, over 40, with a history of mental illness or substance abuse.

"This profile is really not the stereotypical homeless person in the minds of most people," said Karol Schullkin, a program director with the county's Human Services Agency. "We need to wrap our arms around this and put our collective heads together to try to resolve this."

The survey was conducted last spring by the nonprofit Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, which helps coordinate assistance programs. The group interviewed 273 homeless adults who either live on the street or in county shelters.

The county's overall homeless population numbers more than 1,900, including about 300 children, according to a count conducted last year aimed at ensuring that the region gets its fair share of federal money for social service programs.

In the survey, about 70% of the respondents were men, roughly 60% were white and more than half were over 40. Latinos made up 26.7% of respondents, 6.2% were African American and 5.5% were American Indian or Alaska natives.

Almost all of those surveyed considered themselves county residents and had once held a job in the region. The majority completed high school, with 48% receiving some college or postgraduate education.

"Here's a Polaroid print of who is a homeless person in our community," said Cathy Brudnicki, the coalition's executive director. "They're just like you and me. . . . This clearly shows these are members of our community who live here and became homeless while they were living here."

Schullkin said the survey results should help dispel the image of homeless people as transients who only temporarily are without a residence.

"They really are our own neighbors down the street, it just happens that they're on the street rather than in a house down the street," she said.

The challenge of chronic homelessness is more pervasive in Ventura County than elsewhere in Southern California, according to Joe Colletti, executive director of the Institute for Urban Initiatives, who compiled and analyzed the survey data.

The number of people who live on the street for more than one year in other locations, such as Los Angeles and Riverside counties, ranges from 35% to 45%, while in Ventura County that number is 61%, he said. More than a third of survey respondents said they had been homeless for at least three years, and about 20% stated they had been homeless for five years or more.

Domestic violence is also prevalent among the homeless, with more than a third of respondents reporting that they were abused or mistreated by a spouse or partner. Women were more likely to be victimized, accounting for about 60% of the total.

About 30% of survey respondents said they had physical or developmental difficulties that caused problems with walking, eating, breathing or reading. The most common ailments reported: high blood pressure, at 22%; arthritis at 18.7%; heart trouble, at 10.6%; and digestive and asthma problems, 10.6% and 9.5% respectively.

Roughly 43% of respondents admitted they had a substance abuse problem, with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and speed topping the list of the most popular drugs. At the same time, 37% had some form of mental illness.

In December 2006, the nonprofit coalition issued a report outlining a 10-year plan to reduce the number of homeless in Ventura County by 50%.

Among the recommendations was to provide better assistance to indigents discharged from hospitals, teens leaving foster care and former jail and prison inmates reentering society. Other suggestions included hiring social workers to take crucial services directly to those on the street, rather than waiting for homeless people to seek help, and encouraging the construction of hundreds of affordable-housing units for extremely low-income people.

The 2007 homeless survey can be reviewed on the Homeless and Housing Coalition's website at www.vchhc.org.

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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