Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Benites | On Homelessness and Vagrancy

Jason Benites discusses community concerns

By Lori Denman-Underhill

In the quest to find solutions to helping the homeless and stop vagrancy, it is essential to begin a dialogue with professionals who interact with the issues on a daily basis.

One individual who oversees operations and officers of the homeless and vagrancy capacity is Oxnard’s Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites. Top concerns for some of the local community include how the homeless situation in Oxnard is and is vagrancy an issue?

“Contending with issues related to homelessness and vagrancy is an everyday thing for our officers,” said Benites, when describing Oxnard police calls on a subset of the homeless in their city. An estimation is unknown for an exact percentage or number of calls. Benites admitted, “Yet it is significant.”

Benites is one of two assistant chiefs at the Oxnard Police Department. He is in charge of many units including the department’s Field Services Bureau, which oversees the patrol officers; traffic officers; K9’s; School Resource Officers; SWAT; gang officers, dispatch, the Neighborhood Policing Team, and the department’s Homeless Liaison officers.

Oxnard has its own challenges when dealing with vagrant-related issues, as compared to Ventura. It does not yet have a chronic offender program, special court for the homeless, nor a deputy city attorney that can be assigned to coordinate legal efforts to address vagrancy issues, including coordinated prosecution of Oxnard City Code violations. Oxnard has relatively less staffing to focus exclusively on homelessness and vagrancy than neighboring Ventura, yet experiences similar crimes. A few solutions are on Oxnard’s horizon, including hopes of a year-round shelter, revised City ordinances, and developing a working group to coordinate efforts. A crisis intervention officer will also go into service this summer and will be paired with a mental health professional to address persons who suffer from mental health issues.

When strategizing problem solving for the homeless and vagrancy issues, the Oxnard Police Department calls upon its Neighborhood Policing Team (NPT) which consists of eighteen (18) officers and two (2) sergeants. There are two (2) Homeless Liaison Officers (HLO’s), Six (6) District Coordinators, ten (10) Beat Coordinators, and two (2) sergeants.  These officers are detached from handling radio calls, and their primary functions are to engage in community-policing and problem-solving efforts. A police commander, who reports to Benites, manages this workgroup.

While all of these members work as a larger team, the two Homeless Liaison Officers are specifically assigned to work the streets and focus on the homeless and vagrancy issues.

There are also four officers assigned to the downtown Oxnard storefront and one officer who works with the District Coordinator in River Park. Two of those officers make up the Homeless Liaison Officers who work full time. Citizens Journal interviewed its sergeant, Rocky Marquez, recently and discussed their duties in the story, “Breakdown of Morality.” This group teams up with the Neighborhood Policing Team on certain jobs including the breakdown of any large encampments.

Good news is on the forefront that will assist Oxnard’s homeless with mental health issues. A new grant has been awarded to Ventura County Behavioral Health that will allow the city to hire a working street team including a mental health professional and a Crisis Intervention Officer with Oxnard PD. This team will work together to help the each person with their specific needs and aim to get them services. Overall, Benites is thankful for this grant and hopeful for the road ahead.

In the following Q&A, Benites and Citizens Journal discussed the homeless and homeless vagrancy issues in Oxnard. There are two parts to this interview. One is published here today and the remaining interview section will publish next week.

Citizens Journal: We have completed previous stories on the homeless and vagrancy issues in Ventura and have learned that there is a large amount of people that don’t accept services. Is the Oxnard Police Department finding it difficult to find those who want help and services, since there are so many that don’t?

Benites: It is a challenge, because the majority of homeless that our officers encounter are service-resistant.  This is for a wide variety of reasons, and we can’t state an exact percentage of homeless who want services versus those who don’t.  A good example was Halaco, an illegal homeless encampment next to Ormond Beach, which had up to about 160 people living there. During the ninety days that we gave its inhabitants to vacate, our officers partnered with a number of social services providers.   We made a systematic effort to attempt to contact everyone on the site. Of those we contacted, I was told by our officers that less than twenty percent accepted services that were designed to help them, and a lesser percentage followed through. That’s frustrating.

I do want to clarify that from our department’s perspective, there are distinguishing factors between the “homeless” and “vagrants”.  Homelessness is a condition, a situation, the status of not having a home.  A homeless person is not necessarily a vagrant. Vagrancy involves a variety of antisocial behaviors and criminal activity. It is these behaviors that disturb the peace of the average member of the public, and usually end up getting law enforcement involved.

CJ: Yes, we did a story on that.

Benites: The Halaco project was a significant undertaking at end of last year to the beginning of this year. We realized that we had a very large problem there. We were receiving police and fire calls there to a great extent. The onsite population peaked at about 160, which were predominantly service-resistant people. They were on private property, so that was another layer of challenge. We made efforts to convince people to accept services and vacate the site. Our Neighborhood Policing team and Homeless Liaison Officers went there and served notices to vacate the premises in late October, we gave them 45 days to leave that property. In the wake of the Thomas Fire, we added another 45 days to vacate. Our officers took service providers onto the site several times. A small percentage said that they would accept services and then an even smaller percentage followed through.

CJ: Well, regarding the Halaco site, it reminds me a little bit of a wet house, where they allow homeless people to reside for free with no rules, including sobriety, and they can be drug addicts and drink alcohol there. It’s just not a good idea.

Benites: Halaco had no known established rules about sobriety.  The place was littered with alcohol bottles and cans, and drug paraphernalia could be found across the site.  That, in addition to a number of other reasons, made this a very unsafe place.

CJ: In relation to that, there was a woman who said something during public comments at Ventura City Council: that a homeless person with a mental illness would find it very difficult to even make an appointment. So you need a place for them to stay and receive their medication.

Benites: Yes, It’s not always their fault that they don’t follow through. Some literally need a helping hand to assist them with the most basic tasks and daily functions.  If they can’t establish a routine, or the routine gets disrupted, it can be a big setback for them.

Services are an important part to addressing homelessness, and helping people get out of their situation. However, all the hurdles that can occur with those services need to be low.  I have seen homeless that suffer from issues other than substance abuse, such as cognitive impairment, and have a very difficult time navigating though services. This includes them simply making their appointment times, securing transportation, making it to court, and managing basic functions of their own daily lives.  Add to that the day-to-day dangers of unsheltered living, and other things that can overwhelm them.  For example, some homeless have pets that they are very attached to, and this can be an added difficulty in their finding shelter, as not all programs allow animals.

CJ: So there are the homeless who need help, that you need to reach. But then there are the chronic offenders who are also homeless. Is there a Chronic Offender program in Oxnard like there is in Ventura?

Benites: We do not have a program like that…yet. We’re a bit more resource challenged; Ventura has the ability to allocate a deputy city attorney’s time onto this. Ventura also has some municipal ordinances that are different from the ones on Oxnard’s books. In the past year, we have had a lot of discussion about the ones we have, and ones that we’d like to have. We’ve looked at ordinances from a number of cities across California, including Ventura, to see what would work best for us, and which are appropriate to implement.  In a number of places, some ordinances are under legal challenges, or would be controversial if introduced.  We need to be careful in adopting ordinances that are currently under legal challenges in other cities, or would have such a narrow scope that they would be viewed as discriminatory.

CJ: So there is the Municipal Code in Ventura, Chapter 1.050 policy related to chronic offenders. They can commit multiple misdemeanors before they even end up in court. Is that what you are talking about?

Benites: Yes, that is part of it. Ventura is very fortunate that they have their resources within their City Attorney’s office to follow through with court meeting prosecution on municipal code violations. The city of Oxnard has been historically challenged with resources and staff in the City Attorney’s office when dealing with this particular issue. We are hoping in the near future we can get that changed.

CJ: What is holding this process back?

Benites: Budget is a big part of it. Budget is what would fund resources that could coordinate the prosecution of these municipal code violations.  For example, the City of Ventura has a Deputy City Attorney that is assigned to work and coordinate those issues with VPD and the Chronic Offender program.

CJ: So you guys are looking to see what is happening in Ventura and other cities to see what works?

Benites: Absolutely. It’s always good to look around, outside of your own environment, and see what it working. To give you an idea, our Homeless Liaison Officers did research and contacted a number of other Southern California agencies. A lot of them were on coastal cities that have larger homeless populations including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Monica, and San Diego. They looked at a large number of municipal ordinances that these cities have, and we would like to move forward with ones that work.  As I mentioned earlier, the rub is that some of those ordinances are being legally challenged in elsewhere in the state. So it would not be our best interest to adopt something like that until a challenge has been resolved, and that an ordinance has prevailed.

CJ: Are there any other issues that Oxnard PD must be mindful of?

Benites: We certainly don’t want to adopt ordinances that are legally problematic, appear to or are discriminating against anyone, such as the homeless population. For example, this discussion has actually taken place in a subcommittee of Oxnard’s Commission on Homelessness. There are advocates for the homeless on that commission that would certainly not be inclined to adopt some of these ordinances.

For example, we would also like to be better able to address encampments, and camping in public. We receive a lot of complaints from the public about encampments, as well as those who set up day camps in our parks. Seeing dozens of people with large quantities of personal effects strewn about them becomes unsightly and deters others from using the facility or site. However, in order to have an ordinance like this on our books, there really should be an opportunity or place for the homeless to safety keep/store their things during the day.

We would also like to be better able to address some other behaviors, such as aggressive panhandling. One ordinance that we are in the process of amending is the prohibition on drinking alcohol in public. Our current ordinance for that actually requires that the officer sees the person drinking in public. The amendment would add mere possession of open container in public. That ordinance has a broad application, as it would everybody.

CJ: Does Oxnard receive a lot of complaints about camping in public?

Benites: Yes. It frustrates people. When people see homeless or vagrants throughout the parks, they are not going to go there. People will not take their family or children to the parks, and merchants will complain that this drives business away. 

CJ: Is Oxnard doing anything to fix that problem?

Benites: Yes, we started an initiative last October called Take Back Our Parks. The Chief of Police and I were riding in my car one day during that month, and drove by a park that is about four blocks from the station. This park has a senior center, along with a lawn bowling facility.  During recent times, we were noticing that vagrants were starting to camp out there.  The number of vagrants had been increasing, and the department received an increase of complaints.  We got out of our car, walked up and saw a bunch of people run away from us. I looked down at the grass and there were syringe parts such as plunger caps. In the picnic area there was alcohol, a hastily discarded meth pipe on the barbecue,  and a syringe on the picnic table next to a sandwich. And this is just one time on one day. This is completely unacceptable. So we started this initiative that day. Our Neighborhood Policing Teams and patrol officer looked at a map of the geographic areas of the city, and they’ve been conducting regular and ongoing sweeps through the parks and clean them up.

CJ: Are the daily sweeps through the parks working?

Benites: I see that it is working, yes. We note the efforts in our daily log. Generally, at first we saw a lot of arrests for possession of paraphernalia, under the influence, drinking in public and things. As time went on, there has been a lot less of that since we started in October. So that is a good sign.

CJ: What’s the goal?

Benites: We want the parks to be safe places where people have no reservations about taking their families and kids there. I drive by that park almost every day and I see how much it has changed for the better. However, it’s an ongoing challenge. If we stop paying attention to it, the vagrants come back.

CJ: Do you have an estimation for homeless crime in Oxnard?

Benites: I think I saw an interview you did with VPD Chief Ken Corney stating an actual percentage of homeless related calls. We do not have an estimation. But I can say that it is very significant. Calls that we go on, some are crimes, but some may be for a homeless person sleeping in the hallway of a business or drinking in public. This is an everyday thing for our officers.

CJ: Does downtown have a large problem with homeless crime? Or what parts of town are most affected?

Benites: Just like any other downtown, there are challenges. Downtown Oxnard is the city’s transportation center and there are two facilities that provide shelter or services to the homeless there. There’s the Ventura County Rescue Mission, two blocks from downtown. And the Community Action of Ventura County facility is a quarter mile away. Also, the homeless congregate along the Fifth Street corridor on the railroad tracks, which are both travel routes. Overall, we do have a homeless population here, including downtown, that is significant, compared to other cities in the county.

CJ: Is the Commission on Homelessness in Oxnard doing good work?

Benites: I know they are really trying to get some things done. The Commission on Homelessness is also trying to get some of these initiatives to pass, like the Safe Sleep Program.  Hopefully that will be established soon. This advisory group is also advocating for the establishment of a year-long shelter here in Oxnard. I recently went to downtown San Diego with members of the commission, Oxnard’s mayor, a Homeless Coordinator from our Housing Department. We did a visit to see what San Diego’s downtown shelter looked like and what they did. Those seem to be well-run operations. They house several hundred homeless people in shelters there.

There is a second section of this interview with Benites and it will be published next week. 

 

Lori Denman-Underhill has been a professional journalist since 1996. She 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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3 Responses to Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Benites | On Homelessness and Vagrancy

  1. Michelle June 22, 2018 at 9:36 am

    They are forgetting South Oxnard as usual. South Oxnard is bad…. Look at the alley behind the Goodwill.

    Reply
  2. Woke2Reality June 21, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    The last thing Oxnard should do is look to Ventura and its municipal code for solutions. The vagrant problem in Ventura is growing exponentially as city leadership refuses to address the issue with an iota of common sense, but instead supporting and funding “solutions” that are the farthest thing from solutions. If vagrancy, criminal behavior, and substance abuse are the issues, then a free bed is not going to solve the problem. Nor will the vagrancy issues be solved without forcing the service-resistant vagrants to avail themselves of the services offered. Ventura’s “solutions” are simply enticements to more vagrancy and crime.

    Reply
  3. Lewis f June 21, 2018 at 2:13 am

    I’m happy to be first to say welcome to them, that will get me props in social media

    Reply

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