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Volunteers Fan Out To Count Ventura County's Homeless

Life as a single homeless woman can be a perilous place, but in six years on and off the streets, Barb Noble has learned to navigate the at-times treacherous waters.

She knows the West County Winter Warming Shelter opens Dec. 1 and closes March 31, that it’s in Oxnard this year, and next year rotates back to Ventura. Noble can clean up while she’s at the seasonal shelter, but she prefers Harbor Community Church in midtown Ventura, where the showers are handicapped-friendly, she can do a load of laundry and get a hot meal.

The 58-year-old also knows the importance of being included in Ventura County’s annual count of the homeless population, which volunteers conducted Tuesday.

“You complain about food because it’s sparse, or there’s not enough blankets,” Noble said, referring to her friends’ gripes as she sat in a wheelchair at the Ventura Transit Center. “How do you think you’re going to get money for those services if you don’t stand up and get counted?”

About 300 volunteers emphasized that point Tuesday as they fanned out across the county in the hope of counting every homeless person. The one-day exercise, overseen this year by the county of Ventura, is conducted the last Tuesday in January to qualify for roughly $2 million in federal funds geared at ending homelessness. The final tally will come later.

Last year’s census captured 1,936 homeless people, about 64 more than in 2011. The largest concentration — 701 — was in Ventura, followed by Oxnard, 522, and Simi Valley, 284. Ventura and Oxnard tend to swap the No. 1 and 2 spots, depending on who hosts the winter shelter. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, it was in Ventura.

Ventura’s Community Services Manager Peter Brown, who oversaw the 52 teams that set out to city streets and service centers, doesn’t make predictions when it comes to whether the count will go up or down on any given year.

“I’m always surprised when it doesn’t go down because so many organizations are doing so much good work,” Brown said. “That said, it’s not like there’s a lot of extremely affordable housing being built so that tempers my surprise.”

Volunteers were trained earlier this month on how to fill out questionnaires and ways to approach people. Homeless people need only give initials and answer questions, including how many times they have been
homeless in the past three years, served in the military, have mental illness or a history of addiction.


Michael O’Connor, a full-time mortgage broker, was moved to tears at the start of his shift Tuesday morning in Thousand Oaks while looking for individuals at a nearby park.

“If I can help people who can afford homes, I should help others through charity,” O’Connor said after taking a moment to compose himself.

O’Connor is the chief financial officer for affordable housing nonprofit Many Mansions, which has organized the Thousand Oaks homeless count since it began in 2007.

By noon, volunteers had counted 46 individuals, and teams had yet to go out for the afternoon shifts.

“That’s not great news in that it could indicate a larger homeless population,” Many Mansions President Rick Schroeder said.

Last year, there were 90 people counted citywide, according to the census.

One of the homeless Tuesday was Paul Hamilton, 52, counted as he ate a brown-bag lunch at a table in Conejo Creek North Park.

Hamilton has been homeless for the past month. He said he has been out of work for two years because of degenerative discs in his neck that required multiple operations, but his unemployment had not been a problem until his wife filed for divorce.

“Even the fast food places, they don’t want anyone my age,” Hamilton said. “You never think that things like this are going to happen — one little medical problem gets the whole thing rolling.”

O’Connor and volunteer Mary Freed, a retired speech therapist, discussed possible job leads for Hamilton.

“It’s nice that people came,” Hamilton said. “That’s the biggest thing — to realize that we’re not alone. There are people willing to help.”

Not everyone is as willing as Hamilton to receive help, which at times frustrated Chris Russell, a homeless services supervisor for Ventura County.

Take the woman who sat on a small table outside Starbucks off South Mills Road in Ventura. Bundled in a ski hat and jacket, her face weathered from the elements, the woman refused to answer Russell’s questions. Nearby, a shopping cart apparently held her belongings: a sleeping bag, clothes, and other essentials.

“You feel like you want to record this stuff ... but if they don’t want to be recorded” there’s nothing to do, Russell said.

The annual count began because no one had a clear picture of the extent of homelessness in the county.

In recent years, those who work with the homeless community have moved to a housing-first approach — versus a transitional-living model — which puts as a top priority getting people into permanent residences. Case managers concurrently work with people on outside issues, which often include mental problems and substance abuse.

The county is halfway through a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Ventura County, and officers are retooling it to better reflect that housing strategy.

As part of Ventura’s approach, the city pushes a hand-up versus a handout approach, and launched an anti-panhandling campaign to discourage people from giving to those seeking money. In the fall, the city, county and private owners undertook an aggressive effort to clean up encampments long entrenched along the Ventura River.

So far, it’s been successful, Community Services Manager Brown told the City Council during a project update on Monday night.

David Stegall, who said he became homeless this time in late October, proudly showed off the green paper around his wrist signaling he’d been counted.

“Beat you to the punch,” he said to volunteers outside the Ventura Transit Center next to Pacific View mall. The former Thousand Oaks resident said he prefers Ventura because the services are more easily accessible.

“The more people that count, the more money that’s allotted,” said Stegall, who learned about the count through friends and volunteers from Harbor Community Church.


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