While Ventura County aggressively closed businesses, schools, churches and playgrounds during its devastating response to the COVID outbreak, it remains befuddled by the sizable homeless population located at the Santa Clara River bottom — a decades-long source of crime, wildfires and pollution in the area.
“We’ve heard from many of you having concerns about encampments of individuals facing homelessness,” county executive Mike Powers said in an August 11 statement. “In recent years, the number and size of homeless encampments in the river bottom have significantly increased, pointing to the need for long-term solutions for unsheltered individuals posing a threat to public health, sanitation, and environmental health.”
Powers added that a large-scale effort involving nearly two dozen agencies in an “extensive network of County Services and housing programs” will once again attempt to remove the illegal encampment, which has sprung back after each previous eviction effort for at least 15 years.
By the 1990s, the Santa Clara River bottom was home to the oldest and largest homeless community in Southern California outside of the inner cities, with a population of up to 200 arriving at least as far back as the World War Two era. Infamous to both officials and residents, the camp became a frequent sinkhole of county resources. For example, in 1995, Ventura County sheriffs warned river bottom squatters to vacate the encampment ahead of winter flooding, which had killed a resident three years earlier. The homeless community resisted the authorities, with one man making vulgar gestures at their helicopter. In the ensuing flood, the helicopter returned to rescue men clinging to trees above the rising water — but not before it had claimed another life.
The encampment is not only a danger to itself but to the surrounding area as it became a haven for drug use and other criminal activity to the point where police don’t even keep statistics. The crime was too much even for some homeless residents, one telling the Los Angeles Times, “It was too violent over there, too much stuff going on. You leave your camp for 15 minutes, and they steal whatever it is you got.”
The Ventura City Council eventually voted to ban the encampment after years of ignoring it and allocated $225,000 to evict its occupants, who would merely sneak back as soon as authorities turned their backs. The Times quoted one man that he would return “just as soon as I can get away with it.”
Unable to enforce their ban, in 2005, officials decided to partially legalize it by creating a permanent, self-governing tent city on public land adjacent to the river bottom. The new community, called River Haven, was first proposed in 1991 by councilman Todd Collart in response to complaints about the river bottom’s homeless population, but it did not get off the ground until Ventura’s community services manager personally attended a sweep. The camp would be managed by Turning Point Foundation, and would include transitional housing (first domes, then Tuff Sheds) with strict rules. A major provision was the establishment of a homeless zone on the outskirts of the community for those that did not want to adhere to its substance-abuse prohibition.
The designated legal area did not succeed in enticing squatters to emerge from the riverbed, and crime continued. The River Haven residents were the latest victims, losing their belongings and valuable propane to thieves in the tall brush by the river. Within a year of River Haven’s establishment, a construction worker was stabbed to death by a transient on the bridge over the river. Citing the increase in crime, in June 2006, Ventura County sheriffs performed the first eviction sweep of the river bottom in nearly a decade. But, preferring a softer approach, the county brought in social services instead of dealing with the problem in a “strictly law enforcement way,” according to Captain Ron Nelson. Having cleared the camp, the subsequent cleanup was estimated to cost $20,000 per acre.
Illicit camping soon returned. In November 2009, volunteers logged 3,818 pieces of trash. As of September 2012, there were 43 people and a dozen pets in 20 camps in the river bottom. The county gave out $100,000 in motel vouchers, and officials removed 100 tons of trash, according to the Ventura County Star in an article entitled Officials clean up Ventura River bottom for what they hope is the last time. “As long as anyone can remember, people have called the river bottom home,” reported the Star’s Arlene Martinez. “Almost equally as long, efforts have been made to remove them.”
Forty more tons were disposed of in summer 2013, the third time one particular occupant’s belongings had been removed. In 2015, human remains were found in the encampment. That December, officials, careful to not call it an enforcement sweep, tried to relocate 25 campers ahead of El Nino storms to avoid the drownings that had occurred in prior years. In 2016, a transient was shot to death in his tent. In 2017, authorities acknowledged the illegal dwellers have “grown significantly” since the last eviction, and thefts and vandalism were increasing in nearby communities. Periodic law enforcement sweeps yielded arrests for outstanding warrants, but officials stopped short of evictions.
Wildfires ignited by the homeless added to the surrounding community’s woes. In 1994, fire captain Myles Smith said, “Firefighters are called at least once a week to put out runaway campfires” in the river bottom, where bushes and bamboo burns quite rapidly, particularly on windy fall and winter nights when residents are most likely to try to warm themselves. “The winds can come up and spread those fires through the brush and to homes,” said fire chief Kevin Fildes after an arsonist set two fires at the encampment in 2006.
The area’s homeless problem received national attention in 2018, when a transient stabbed to death a man holding his 5-year-old daughter while seated at the Aloha Steakhouse on the Ventura Promenade. Outraged citizens criticized the Ventura Police Department for ignoring multiple 911 calls about the man’s disturbing behavior outside the restaurant prior to the attack. While the suspect has no known connection to the river bottom four miles away, the incident contributed to the impression that public officials have chosen to give up and live with the homeless problem and its effects on the county. “We have been devastated by the fires, and we are now being run out by vagrants,” said one of dozens of speakers at the next Ventura City Council meeting, to cheers. She added that her kids have found men using drugs in their yard, reported the Ventura County Star.
Hundreds of now-routine homeless encounters are recorded within a two-mile radius of the riverbed. Rather than attempt another eviction, on every third Wednesday work crews arrive to tell the 60 or so inhabitants to bring belongings inside before cleaning up their garbage, leaving their makeshift shelters intact. A bulldozer widened the path to the river bottom for fire engines to fight more easily the “common” fires, according to VCReporter.
Now, having broadened its powers to unprecedented levels during the pandemic, Ventura County once again sets it sights on clearing the encampment. But instead of flexing its muscle as it did when it temporarily closed virtually all business and social activity, from churches to campgrounds (excepting the illegal one in the riverbed), county supervisors are taking a much softer approach and will lead a “village of agencies, jurisdictions, and departments to assess and ensure the effectiveness of the endeavor, which includes finding housing for people and trying to avoid forcing them to find other unsuitable places to shelter,” according to the county’s official announcement.
The “village” is a small army, including the cities of Oxnard and Ventura, the Ventura County Human Services Agency, the Ventura County Health Care Agency, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, the Fire Protection District, the county’s Backpack Medicine Team, CalTrans, all city managers in the county, County and State Parks, the Public Works Watershed District, the General Services Agency, the Ventura County Medical Center, Ventura County Behavioral Health, Community Liaison, County Whole Person Care, and a Homeless Management Information System. Nongovernmental organizations will assist, according to the county, including Turning Point, Salvation Army, Rescue Mission, United Way, Mercy House, Spirit of Santa Paula, Lutheran Social Services, Harbor House, Samaritan Center, Nature Conservancy, RAIN Transitional Living Center, Supportive Services for Veteran Families, Homelessness Prevention & Rapid Re-Housing Program, and CalWorks Housing Support Program.
At the head of the army is the county’s executive office and the Ventura County board of supervisors, which has not yet mitigated the river bottom encampment despite allocating $25 million to a wide range of homeless services and affordable housing developments in the last two years. The two supervisors whose district includes the encampment, Carmen Ramirez and Matt LaVere, both voted to sue 19 businesses that defied county lockdown orders, but have opted for a softer approach toward “individuals facing homelessness.”
“Together, the county and cities have made significant program efforts and financial contributions towards preventing and ending homelessness by investing in staffing, services, shelter and housing solutions,” the county announced. “Based on the needs of each homeless individual in the river bottom, efforts will be made to connect individuals to shelter and housing options funded by the County and Cities ranging from shelters, hotels, safe camping/parking, affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, and rentals among others. The County and Cities are exploring providing transportation to these options in addition to mobile showers, handwashing stations, property storage and restrooms if relocating to a safe camping location.”
The cleanup was planned for September.