Homeless are not just houseless, often they are troubled addicts

COMMENTARY /// Prop. 1 needs to do more

ENDINGS—The author shown left on Westlake Lake joined by a friend and 56-yearold Brian Ashheim, who died Feb. 8 in a Conejo Valley homeless camp. Courtesy photo

ENDINGS—The author shown left on Westlake Lake joined by a friend and 56-year-old Brian Ashheim, who died Feb. 8 in a Conejo Valley homeless camp. Courtesy photo

Brian Ashheim was my friend. For many of us in the local area his death has become the tragedy that’s lifted our collective gaze from day-to-day living and forced us to take a hard look at the stark realities of homelessness and addiction.

I hadn’t heard from Brian in years when I received the call that he had passed. Without being told, I knew what had ended his life: addiction to alcohol.

The manner of his death—heart failure—as he lived alone in the rain near the homeless encampment next to Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks.

With the recent passing of Proposition 1, Californians are wondering if this bill will prove to be the solution to homelessness we’ve been waiting for. We’re eager for an effective way to help those suffering on our streets. And let me tell you, they are suffering. Violence, rape, theft—it’s an abject culture of fear.

For many years, I was involved in nonprofits serving homeless individuals and addicts. The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the misery I’ve witnessed—it’s a dark, parallel world.

Prop. 1 seeks to bring some light to this darkness and hope to those affected, directly and indirectly, by homelessness. Its slogan: “Treatment not Tents,” may prove to be a bit of a misnomer in that the main push of this legislation that was narrowly approved by voters seems to be housing, not treatment. For most of the homeless population, housing is the foundation upon which all other supportive services are built. However, I don’t think this same scaffolding works for addicts.

There are several different groups of people who end up on the streets. A large percentage are those with hard-luck stories involving tragedy, mental illness, insufficient life skills or a combination of the three. Many resort to drugs and alcohol, but that’s not the main reason they are destitute. Housing paired with social services can significantly improve the lives of these folks. I’ve seen it work.

Then there are the addicts.

Homeless addicts are very different from the other categories of homeless people. Better life circumstances will not relieve their addiction. They are driven by a compulsion so all-consuming that they will forfeit just about anything in pursuit of oblivion.

Helping homeless addicts and helping the rest of the homeless population are two different things. The operative word being “help.” The two populations have different problems and, therefore, will need different solutions.

Let’s hope that Prop. 1 brings together effective leaders to formulate the programs that will be costing California taxpayers $6.4 billion (plus interest). Too often, unqualified and out-of-touch academics and politicians chime in on social situations they don’t understand. So, let’s hope Prop. 1 draws on the experience and ideas of those who’ve run this gauntlet and come out the other side.

Who better to give input than ex-addicts and ex-homeless individuals?

I happen to be one of those people.

To the astonishment of those who know me now, I was once an IV drug addict. I took this road less traveled beginning in 1995, my senior year at Agoura High School. By the grace of God, the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department and California’s criminal justice system, in 1997 I was court-ordered to a 12-month residential treatment program. My trajectory changed profoundly and permanently during my year at the Santa Barbara

Rescue Mission, where I was given a new way of living that would shape the rest of my life.

It’s hard to pin down the difference between me and the many addicts that never recover, but have a rough idea. I was young when I was court-ordered to residential treatment—young enough to reroute some of those addiction neural pathways without years of hardwired resistance.

I went to a rescue mission where I was forced to take responsibility for myself, rather than a Malibu rehab where frills and therapy are often intertwined. I had to stay in treatment for a full 12 months or go to jail. Upon completion of the one-year program, I had lengthy and severe terms of probation. It worked for me, thank you, God,

One can but wonder the consequences of government-funded housing on a 19-year-old hope-to-die addict like me. And ask anyone you know who’s had a serious addiction and they’ll tell you the same thing: Providing housing to addicts without a strict treatment program will only serve to drive up rates of addiction, crime, overdose and death.

Some might believe that Brian would still be alive if he’d had housing on that bleak, wet 40-degree night.

But it wasn’t the storm that killed him.

It was addiction.

Leigh-Anna Bivens is a stay-at-home mom and a volunteer. She lives in Newbury Park.


Homeless count update:

T.O. sees increase, but county as a whole shows drop in homelessness

The Ventura County Continuum of Care Alliance, a group dedicated to ending homelessness in the county, has released its data for 2024 and it shows a slight decline in the number of people who are houseless in the county.

The count has been performed every year since 2007, except in 2008, and again in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ventura County’s homeless count amount was at its lowest in 2017, at 1,152. It was at its highest in 2023 with 2,441.

This year, there were 2,358 adults and children counted as homeless during the federally-mandated point-in-time count. The number decreased by 83 from last year’s tally.

A significant spike in homeless people occurred between 2019 and 2024. In 2019, there were 1,669, compared to 2,358 in 2024.

The continuum also makes the distinction between people who are sheltered and unsheltered. Sheltered is defined as those living in a supervised publicly or privately operated place for temporary living, like shelters, transitional housing and motels, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Being unsheltered means residing in an area not designed for regular living, including a car, park, abandoned buildings, bus station or camping ground.

The total number of people counted as sheltered countywide increased from 808 in 2023 to 927 in 2024. The number of unsheltered people dropped from 1,633 in 2023 to 1,431 in 2024.

Oxnard had the most homeless individuals, 752, while Thousand Oaks’ total stands at 178. Next is Simi Valley (160), Camarillo (89) and Moorpark (5).

While the number of homeless people decreased countywide in the past year, Thousand Oaks added 50 people to its official count in 2024.

                                                                                                                                                                                                       –Zia Zografos