Oxnard Low Barrier Homeless Shelter Funding Discussed at City Council Tomorrow

Is the community ready for a low barrier shelter?

By Lori Denman-Underhill

There is a proposed plan to open a low barrier   24-hour year-round homeless shelter by December in Oxnard. If the budget is approved tomorrow night at the Oxnard City Council meeting, seed money will be partially given from the $1.5 million of Measure O to fund the shelter (see graphic below).

Proposed Measure O funding

Homeless advocates and others have been asking for the establishment of the shelter and believe that all homeless persons, including homeless vagrants addicted to illegal drugs or who have been convicted of crimes, should be given a bed in a shelter. A “low barrier” shelter houses these homeless persons.

One who is aiming to make a difference in homelessness is Mark Alvarado, the Homeless Coordinator for the City of Oxnard. He works out of the Housing Department and that is his official title and function. But in terms of of what he’s doing right now, he is working on a variety of different strategies to address homelessness.

Part of that is a regional approach with the City of Ventura and with the County of Ventura, primarily on shelter strategies.

“As you know, we are on the verge of opening a year-round 24-hour shelter with a nonprofit operator,” Alvarado said to Citizens Journal.  “They are on the cusp of creating this program in the fall or winter with a prospective opening date of December 1, since this is when the colder Winter months begin.

“All of the agreements need to be in place, along with approvals on everything and staff hiring by late September, in order for it to open in December,” Alvarado explained. “All of this information on who we are hiring will not be announced until after the budget is obtained.”

Alvarado is also working to develop a Safe Sleep Program, similar to Ventura’s, where homeless persons may sleep in their cars in parking lots.

“A lot of this stuff has fallen on my plate including administrating the federal emergency solutions grants for homelessness and working with service providers, especially those concerning women and children in shelters,” Alvarado said. “This also includes St. Vincent de Paul Ventura County assistance programs, Community Action of Ventura with Community Outreach and Rapid Rehousing. We will also have the police and their triage grant, bringing in a mental health professional to team up with a police officer to hit the streets and assist the homeless. Hopefully there will also be an EMT assisting them with medical issues.”

“We are also working with law enforcement on the transient and vagrant issues and the encampment issues which are all over,” he added. “Us being in California, we have a crisis with service resistant folks. As much as we have a homeless problem, we also have a mental health issue as well, so we have our hands full.”

Alvarado went to San Diego to view the homeless shelters there, to see what works. There was a shelter with sections for mothers and children; one for adult men; and one for adult women. Alvarado said that he is studying shelters to see how they become successful.

While there are many community members who support a shelter, there are also many who are concerned with low barrier plan, which is defined as “housing couples, people with pets, and people struggling with mental health or addiction problems.” On this website, the low barrier model contains the definition of housing those with “an active or history of substance use” or “criminal record, with exceptions for state-mandated restrictions.”

Once Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced plans to build a 24-hour low barrier shelter, local Little Saigon residents and business owners opposed the plan, stating that the shelter “needed to address the negative safety, public health, economic and cultural impacts on Little Saigon and communities.”

Residents of Ventura are skeptical of the low barrier approach that has been used in San Francisco and has led to an increase of crime.  Citizens Journal article, “A Town Turned Upside Down,” describes the effectiveness of the low barrier housing.

Ventura and Oxnard residents know that there are shelters that may open in their cities. Many of these residents are studying low barrier housing and its affects in other cities and encourage others to do the same.

Homeless vagrants on Main Street. File Photo by Jim Rice.

INTERVIEW WITH MARK ALVARADO AND CITIZENS JOURNAL

Citizens Journal: What needs to happen next, in order for the shelter to open?

Mark Alvarado: These are the steps:

  • Secure funding for property acquisition and ongoing operations. Funding amount will be determined by the cost of the property. Annual operations are projected between $600,000 to $800,000. This is a full social services operation and navigation center/shelter.
  • Inform and outreach to the public location of homeless facility.
  • Contract a qualified operator through an RFP process with the County of Ventura and the City of Ventura via a tri-party agreement for shelters in both cities.
  • Have an established separate plan to expand services for an extreme Foul Weather event.
  • Schedule contract and agreement approvals with all elected bodies by the fall 2018.
  • Open annual 24-hour shelter by December of 2018

Does the 2019 city budget need to pass with this in it? Is the shelter in the budget ? When will we know if it passes? 

Yes. 1.5 million of Measure O seed money is in the budget for next year and is up for approval tomorrow night at the Oxnard City Council meeting on June 26.

Where does your personal passion come from to help the homeless?

I used to work in El Paso, Texas and cross the border into Juarez (Mexico) for lunch. I would become immersed into a world of such extreme poverty and wonder to myself, ‘Why them and not me?’ All of us, any of us could be homeless. This could happen from the loss of a loved one or a loss of a job. We are all very vulnerable to homelessness.

Where is the shelter to be located?

It may develop in the industrial area, SB2 Zones to identify where the shelter can be developed. There is an SB2 Zone in Oxnard. We don’t know when or where but we are really close.

How is it being paid for?

Ventura is doing their own shelter and so is Oxnard. The County is matching the city of Oxnard’s funds. There will be a Tri Party Agreement between the county, the City of Ventura and the City of Oxnard.

The County will be involved because they will be providing ongoing funding for this effort. We in the City of Oxnard – we have on the agenda to approve of $1.5 million, a million for shelter acquisition and 500K for ongoing operations. We are going to go to the county once that is approved and say what we have on the table. They match it and then that money will help us acquire the building.

We are simultaneously working with other entities to create a proposal to bring in an operator request with the capacity to run for a 24-hour shelter and a comprehensive navigation center, not just beds and a shower. As well as with social services, mental health services, and a coordinated entry and exit program with affordable housing at the end during the exit.

Regarding that subject of affordable housing at the exit, is Oxnard taking steps to create more of that solution as an exit strategy?

We don’t have any projects that are being designed right now. We do have one thing we are working on. We are supporting a location called the The Kingdom Center at Gabriel’s House. We already set aside some funding to do some expansion. So that is one area where we are looking at getting more of a housing element in there. But as far as a bridge or sustainable housing for folks who are specifically homeless, we don’t have that yet. That is definitely in our five-year plan, which goes before council on July 24. It has that element in it. We have to use the shelter approach then hope to get them services.

What will the facility be like?

There will be 200 beds with co-ed adults. There will be sections for men and women. We are working with Many Mansions to open a section for homeless veterans. That is a voucher program for sustainable housing.

Who are the majority of people asking for assistance with shelter?

The majority who call for shelter and services are women seniors. Women over 50 and 55. And we also receive calls regarding their pets.

So you guys might have to get a kennel?

Well, we have to make sure the dogs co-exist.

What if the homeless person has allergies?

Ha. Well, we haven’t thought about that yet.

Oxnard Shelter – “Low Barrier” = No Rules of Sobriety

Is this new 24-hour year-round shelter in Oxnard going to have rules of sobriety and accepting services?

This shelter is going to be low barrier. We have to be able to get people off of the streets. So when we are doing intake and the homeless person is drunk or high (on drugs), we are going to have to figure out how we are going to deal with them and get them into the shelter and get them services. We can’t turn people away. That defeats the purpose.

However, there are those who are service resistant who do not want to live around or near other people and do not accept services. When I interviewed Sergeant Rocky Marquez of the Oxnard Police Department, he mentioned that he and the Homeless Liaison Officers encounter these persons.

We know that there are certain people who are service resistant, yes. They may not even come near us because they don’t want anything to do with any type of government operation.

Are you keeping track of who is refusing services and not? In order to help and treat those who do accept shelter and services?

We will have an intake process and social service workers on the site at the shelter. It’s a 24-hour facility with security. We are working with HMIS, Homeless Management Information System and that really helps us to track folks to document who is seeing a social worker or not. That really helps us when we initially start to do the intake, to see what level each person needs and is accepting assistance. Or if they are already in the system, we may know that we just need to get them a cot at night to sleep and then we follow up with them in the morning. The shelter is low barrier so we can address these issues simultaneously.

I am just playing devil’s advocate here when I ask you this question.

Sure.

Picture this. I am a woman who is sober and not doing meth, looking for a safe, clean and quiet place to sleep. A woman can come in all high on meth and sleep next to me. If I don’t feel safe, that will still be allowed? There won’t be any rules of sobriety?

Well, the person coming into the shelter will be checked for paraphernalia and drugs and not be allowed to bring that in.  That’s why we need a very large facility, so that there can be different sections for these reasons.

So there needs to be a large facility…

Yes, so we can create a section for those persons who are ‘sleeping it off.’ So we can separate them from those who are not using and really trying to get their lives together.

How will you assure that this plan will work well?

We have to have the appropriate staff in place at the start, who will be able to monitor the shelter at a high level.  We also have to hire outside security, train the security and get security cameras. A shelter definitely does not just work by opening the door and throwing down beds.

If the person who is going in and out of the low barrier shelter is using illegal drugs during the day and also is committing crime, what happens to this person when they try to re-enter the shelter?

The facility is not a place to harbor criminals. (Ed. note: “low barrier” includes the meaning of housing those who have an “active or history of substance abuse,” or “criminal record, with exceptions for state-mandated restrictions”). We use a comprehensive Homeless Management Information System that is shared county wide to track social services and benefits that our clients receive. We are exploring the advent of a Community Court system that will assist clients who fall into the penal system. Essentially the facility is for those individuals who want to recover and own their pathway out of homelessness. It’s not our intent to utilize the facility as a revolving door for service resistant or transient vagrant individuals. (Publisher’s note: It was said earlier in this interview that, “we can’t turn people away. That defeats the purpose”).  Once the operation is in full swing law enforcement, service agencies and the homeless will have a comprehensive option for preventing and reducing homelessness.

Are there any rules established yet about this?

As I stated, once we get the operator on board all of the details will be presented for approval.

Because if there are no rules of aiming to reach sobriety, then it would just turn into a big party. We did a story on this and what is happening in San Francisco. It just turns into a “open sore of crime,” as described by a Ventura business owner.

Yes. This is a major investment that entities are making. We have to do it right.

Have you seen this model of a low barrier shelter work?

We went down to San Diego to an emergency shelter and saw how they operated and how they can create this culture of safety by addressing multiple issues. So we know that it can work and it can work in many communities, but it just has to be run properly. That’s why we are looking for an operator who has the capacity to do it right and get it done.

(Ed. note: This is a quote in response to this answer by Quality of Life Ventura member, Paul White: “What Oxnard officials saw was a carefully orchestrated fantasy version of the wet-house reality. To allow drug/alcohol use, not  require employment or mental health counseling, or screen for outstanding warrants, etc. (All of which is mandated when cities take HUD funding), will do nothing but incubate Oxnard’s (or Ventura’s) homeless-by-choice vagrants problem and assure that it continues to grow exponentially.  Find one drug/alcohol abuser who will tell you that they improved their life by being enabled to continue – and be supported in continuing to use. No 12-step program, sober-living home, or proven rehab facility in the universe would say otherwise. A vote for a wet-house would be a vote for trying to end a war by refusing to fight, and just declaring peace. The Oxnard City Council and PD, the courts, and the County Jail (Sheriff’s) need to quit looking for excuses for not enforcing the law and refusing to do their job.”

The homeless person who uses illegal drugs can come in, sleep it off, then leave and go use drugs again all day (in the communities of Oxnard). Then come back and sleep it off again?

Yes, if the person is sober or not sober, they can come in and sleep. We will have a case worker there at the shelter who will talk to them when they come in and ask them what their plan is for the day. Because they can leave the shelter after they sleep and do their business, come back and then talk to the case worker again. After a while, that case worker gets to know each homeless person walking in. Because generally, these facilities will house a person for 30 to 45 days in hopes that they get into affordable housing at the end of that term. But if they don’t, we are not going to kick them out.

What if the person does not follow a plan, rules or services are still at the shelter?

There is no cookie cutter solution. Everyone is different.  You have to be able to address these issues so that the program works. If they want to be in a 12-step program or other type of intervention, there will be those types of services. There is a program that that have to follow if they want to survive within the navigation environment. And if they don’t, it’s unfortunate. But we can’t make them use services. That’s the only way it will work, if they own their pathway. If they don’t and they build up so many infractions or tickets with the PD, then after a while, the PD should have a way to deal with these people.

We are trying to get a system like what Ventura has, the Community Intervention Court, in which a person who is a “Chronic Offender” can do community service or become a trustee of the shelter to work off their tickets. There has to be a way for them to work off their redemption. They have to own it, like I said.

For  Citizens Journal I interviewed Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Benites  and he said that if there was a 12-step program offered right in front of the person, there is more of a chance of it working. He said that since services are offered far away from where the homeless person is located, it is difficult for them to manage travel to that service. Can the shelter hold a 12-step and other programs on the premises?

Yes. That is part of the idea. There are two parts to that. Right now, law enforcement doesn’t have much hope for this when they confront homeless issues. For the past 15 years, there have been social workers and others who try to help the homeless person because they feel like you cannot incarcerate someone out of this issue. It’s not an enforcement issue. It’s a different animal.

After speaking to Chief Scott Whitney and Assistant Chief Benites, we are all thinking of a long term plan. They all understand the human side of it. It helps when your law enforcement gets it, along with the political will that we have right now to get all these things done. As the storm continues to brew, we are hoping that we are doing everything we can right now so that in a year from now, we can sit down and talk more in an evaluative format and look at what is working and not working.

To learn more about low barrier housing, visit this site.


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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