Hopes of a Shelter Solving Homeless Vagrancy

Oxnard Commander Kevin Baysinger discusses his city’s issues

By Lori Denman-Underhill

Homeless advocates of Oxnard have been pleading  for a year-round shelter for years and their City Council just decided last week to approve seed money funds for its establishment.

The shelter is planned to be low barrier. Citizens Journal discussed the meaning of low barrier in this previous article.  If the establishment of a shelter in Oxnard is planned to be low barrier, will this solve the homeless vagrancy problem and reduce crime? What about increased incarceration for those who repeatedly commit crimes and refuse programs and services? Those who work on and off the streets with the homeless have opinions.

Kevin Baysinger, Homeless Liaison Officer

Kevin Baysinger is the commander that oversees the Homeless Liaison Officer program of the Oxnard Police Department and its officers in Oxnard. Sergeant Rocky Marquez, who Citizens Journal previously interviewed, is the program’s leader.

The Homeless Liaison Officer program formed about five years ago when there was a need in the city to deal with the homeless vagrancy issues. Baysinger was a patrol officer for almost 15 years and then became a sergeant, prior to his commander position.

“Even as a field sergeant seven years ago, I remember the high volume of calls we received on homelessness and vagrancy issues,” Baysinger told Citizens Journal.  “There were a couple of these types of calls for service on vagrancy, but not like it is today. The temperature creeps up and you don’t really notice it until someone comes in and says, ‘my goodness, where did all these calls for service come from and how did this happen?”

The gradual explosion of homeless vagrancy grew evident and the Oxnard Police Department formed the liaison team to tackle the problem. The PD and others question what caused the drastic turn? When did violent homeless vagrants come in and infiltrate a peaceful scene of law abiding homeless?

Some believe that one of the causes was the infiltration of crack and methamphetamine on the streets. Baysinger commented on this particular cause. “Do I think that this is one of the causes of increasing vagrancy? Yes. And with the opportunity to purchase drugs, that doesn’t help the situation. I also think that many of the homeless have mental health issues, that goes hand in hand with the homelessness problem as well. These are the challenges that are nationwide right now.”

Let’s look at the issue. Baysinger admits that one of the causes that has taken hold of the peaceful homeless areas is illegal drug use and dealing by homeless vagrants. Oxnard Assistant Chief Jason Benites said, “contending with issues related to homelessness and vagrancy is an everyday thing for our officers,” and that they receive a high volume of calls. Unfortunately, many of these homeless vagrants are refusing services and programs.

With these aspects of homeless vagrancy, the question to ask would be — what is happening with incarceration of those vagrants who commit crime?

“Sometimes when the homeless vagrant gets arrested, it is for a warrant or possessing an open container or a methamphetamine pipe,” Baysinger answered, “With the way our courts are structured right now, these folks don’t see the consequences that existed 10 or 15 years ago. With those offenses, we do take them seriously and we do treat the vagrant the same as we would any other person. The bottom line is that once we do arrest them and take them to jail, it’s a very small amount of time before they are back out again.”

The question is then, would increased incarceration time solve this problem of decreasing vagrancy? Baysinger is unsure if this would solve the problem because he believes that the root cause of the problem isn’t solved, which is their drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issue or their choice to live on the street.

“More jail time would be helpful and it would be great if we could get more service providers,” he admitted. “It would be nice to see more jail time for frequent offenders – for those persons who continuously commit these problems. It is our hopes that after time spent in incarceration, their behaviors will change. Since we keep coming across vagrants that keep committing these crimes, the focus is to change their behavior at this point.”

“If the service resistant homeless vagrant keeps committing the crimes and if they do not want to get into a program, then we obviously need to work with the enforcement angle. For the frequent offenders, we need to increase time for them.”

The Future of Oxnard: “Low Barrier” Shelter to Open

While many believe that “more beds” will solve the homeless vagrancy issue, one can see the opinion of Baysinger above and another person has a professional opinion — John Shipper, who oversees the Adult Operations of Ventura County Behavioral Health (VCBH). His areas of focus include all of Ventura County, including Ventura and Oxnard. He told Citizens Journal, “putting them into a place to live by itself isn’t going to be successful.”

Shipper explained that VCBH is a medical funded treatment provider. They are in business providing service to a particular niche. They offer specialty mental health services to people who are seriously mentally ill. Their population is defined for them by the Welfare Institutions Code.

“While it is true that some people who are homeless also happen to be mentally ill, it is certainly not true that everyone who is homeless is mentally ill,” Shipper said. “For us, homelessness is not really a central organizing premise. It’s not our tent pole. Now, serious mental illness is our organizing feature. So we obviously work with people who find themselves homeless. We do not have a team that is organized around homelessness. If you were to look to the county to see who is the lead agency for homelessness, that is typically the Human Services Agency (HSA).”

All of VCBH’s clinics that treat clients who are mentally ill treat some who are homeless. “Our objective is to first try to get them into a stable housing situation,” Shipper added. “In some instances, it is easier to get the person to accept housing and some people refuse it.”

It is not a large degree of people who are homeless who enroll with VCBH, but it is a small number. There is a regular small group of people who seek services with them who are homeless.

If the majority of homeless who are mentally ill resist services, one would assume that there has to be a lot of trust for that homeless person to even listen to the officer telling them about services. Shipper commented on this assumption.

“For those persons who have been homeless for more than a year, and have been untreated for mental health and might have a substance abuse problem, putting them into a place to live by itself is not going to be successful.  That is the kind of person that is suffering from psychosis, has been homeless for two or three years and have accommodated to a certain kind of lifestyle. To have that person see the benefit of the value of living indoors and giving up certain things in exchange for other things — that can be a tricky proposition as it is, largely predicated upon, time, energy and trust… it’s not easy to accomplish. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a day in and day out.”

The final question may be to the Oxnard communities. Are you ready to welcome this low barrier shelterinto your city? Do you want to give a gift to homeless vagrants who commit crimes, deal drugs and use drugs in your communities a free place to “sleep it off,” as Oxnard’s Homeless Coordinator Mark Alvarado described? Then allow them back into your community daily on your streets to commit crimes again?

Paul White of Quality of Life, Ventura, has some words, “The complaint of ‘we need more beds’ implies that the mental health problem is mostly people who need to be hospitalized. That’s not true. They need lifestyle changes (primarily stopping their drug/alcohol abuse) that trigger and enhance severe mental reactions.”

Lori Denman-Underhill has worked as associate editor for the Los Angeles Daily News TODAY Magazines and has freelanced for LA Weekly, Surfline.com and more. She is now the Ventura reporter for Citizens Journal.

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