The symposium on Homelessness in Thousand Oaks, hosted by the City of Thousand Oaks, took place today at the Scherr Forum in the Civic Arts Plaza. It was a pretty full room, which is not surprising giving how much of a hot-button issue this has become in our community. Councilmember Claudia Bill-de la Pena brought up disheartening conversations she had witnessed on platforms like NextDoor, as well as comments from community members, that expressed to the council opposition against affordable housing because they didn't want to have to see "those people," in their neighborhood. Bill-de la Pena mentioned that $80k households are considered low-income in our area. This is a real issue and California leads the nation in homelessness.
An Introduction to Homelessness in Thousand Oaks
The symposium began with about a 12-15 minute video that cut together interviews from community members experiencing homelessness — many of whom once had secure, full-time jobs and stable finances. These individuals mentioned former employment at huge engineering firms, for example. But the causes for homelessness were many — struggling with alcoholism, the long-lasting impacts from the recession, a family member's terminal illness that caused finances and work stability to spiral out of control, and so on.
How the City of Thousand Oaks is Addressing the Issue
In 2018, the City created an ad hoc committee with oversight from Rob McCoy and Claudia Bill-de la Pena.
The goals of this committee are to:
Address regional approach
Education & Outreach
Public Space and facilities maintenance
Create additional affordable housing
Strengthen response through administrative action
The City shared that it has created a website resource/education section , a resource brochure, has launched an anti-panhandling campaign, has worked with faith communities, and has created educational outreach opportunities (such as this symposium.) Further, they have been working with various local nonprofits and organizations to address homelessness, poverty and food insecurity head on (including Harbor House, Ventura County Continuum of Care, and Manna Food Bank of Conejo Valley — who all had representatives on the panel.)
TOPD Chief Tim Hagel also shared about the PD's Vulnerable Population Unit — which is compromised of two officers dedicated to knowing each of the 250+ homeless individuals in our community.
"But It's Illegal Elsewhere!"
Another topic that was addressed was the "legalization" of people sleeping on City benches at night. Stemming from the federal court ruling on the Robert Martin v. City of Boise, the court found that criminalizing the act of sleeping outside violates one's 8th amendment rights when they have no where else to sleep. The City applied this ruling as such: it is legal for people to sleep on public property under the City's jurisdiction from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. — this excludes camping or tents. The City also redefined "public property," to allow business owners to determine their own actions to those sleeping on their property.
Chief Hagel says that likely, if other cities or communities aren't allowing people to sleep outside when no other accommodations are present — it's unconstitutional, and our City is adhering to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court.
How Supporting Panhandlers Does More Harm Than Good
The City and the organization representatives took a strong stance against supporting panhandlers with donations — urging community members to instead, contribute financially to agencies that are dedicated and experienced in addressing these issues from a strategic level. "Give intentionally to those who help strategically." — Denis Cortes (Harbor House).
A community member asked (paraphrasing): "I understand the stance on not supporting panhandling, but it removes the personal, compassionate part of the response for these individuals. How do we still maintain that?"
To which Chief Hagel gave an anecdote (paraphrasing): "You head to Best Buy on a Sunday morning to buy a huge new TV for the biggest football game of the season. As you're driving out of the parking lot, you're faced with panhandlers on each corner. You attempt not to make eye contact, but your kid in the car says: "Can't we help them?" And so you pull out a $20 from your wallet, roll down your window, hand off the cash, and drive off. Why? Because whether we want to admit it or not, it's guilt. But in handing that $20 over, you've convinced yourself you don't have to do more and can watch that game guilt-free tonight, thinking nothing further. If you want to teach your kids a lesson — take them to the meal service providers that are cooking meals every night for our homeless. Teach them a lesson that will last and have a meaningful impact."
The agencies stressed the need to put our money toward nonprofits/organizations because of just how far they can stretch that dollar. For example, Manna's executive director, Jennifer Schwabauer, shared that they have the capacity to turn your $1 into $8 worth of food for a family — they can be much more effective in supporting food-insecure community members than you could on your own because of their established partnerships and vendors ... reinforcing the point about helping those who help strategically. These organizations are working toward long-term solutions, not band-aids.
The Elephant in the Room — Affordable Housing
Where is it? Tara Carruth, program manager for the Ventura County Continuum of Care, stated number one reason for homelessness in our community is lack of affordable housing, citing renting a room can start at $1,000 a month. (Not to mention one-bedroom apts that start at $1,800/m+).
But in a pro-slow-growth community, where do we look toward providing permanent shelter or developing affordable housing? And who will build this housing? It's expensive to develop affordable housing in California, and ultimately, a developer or property owner is the one to call the shots.
There was also talk about creating a permanent shelter — how? What we do know is that those experiencing homelessness often lack transportation, making it difficult to travel throughout the City from one meal provider to the next each day, and many stated a centralized place for services and shelter would make a tremendous difference.
An Increasing Dilemma
The point in Time Homelessness Count identified 1,699 homeless people in Ventura County. This is a 28.5% increase from 2018, and a 44% increase from 2017. There are a few reasons that can be contribute to the increase in numbers: 1) More accurate reporting, 2) Rising rents, 3) Displacement from natural disasters.
Our most vulnerable populations are our senior citizens, those living with disabilities, and transitional age youth (18-25 year-olds that have aged out of the foster system.)
Speakers also shared stories of community members who had simply fallen on hard times — people who had worked and paid rent for decades — who came across situations out of their control (like their living situation disappearing due to faulty owners) or cancer diagnoses. This is not uncommon.
43% of those who are homeless now are experiencing homelessness for the first time. 5,291 students are at risk, with 10% meeting the HUD definition of homeless, and 12,618 people are enrolled in the County Health Care for Homelessness.
So, this was a lot of talk. That's OK to. Remember, not everyone is "at" the same place you are on any given topic — fostering engagement and action often starts with education and outreach ... so here we are.
You can take the action right now to contact and support local organizations that are directly focused on addressing the issues of homelessness, poverty and food insecurity in our community. Often, these organizations are also at the forefront of conversations on legislations that impact their goals, and also advocacy at the local, state and federal levels that will make a difference.
So get to know them and support them. The City has put together a list HERE.
Reach out to your councilmembers to discuss further, if you have questions or suggestions.
The City's website on this issue is HERE.
You can watch the video of this symposium, which was streamed live, on the City's Facebook page, HERE.
"Homelessness is the human rights issue of our time." — Denise Cortes (Harbor House)