The homeless come home

Locals confront growing problem

Homelessness in the Conejo Valley is not a new phenomenon. Although the problem pales in comparison to urban Los Angeles, it is real and it is here.

According to a 2018 Ventura County report, the number of homeless adults and children in the area rose almost 13 percent over the previous year to 1,300. It is the first time since 2009 that the year-over-year homeless count in the county increased, the report said.

At an Agoura Hills City Council meeting Aug. 8, a woman who lives out of her car asked officials from the city if they could join a broader effort underway to provide maps of safe places to park overnight.

A nonprofit group, SafePark Los Angeles, makes the maps available to homeless people, showing them where they can legally park for the night and not be disturbed by sheriff’s deputies.

“There’s nothing like that here,” said the woman, who asked that her identity be kept secret.

People counted as homeless in the February 2018 report are those who live on sidewalks and in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, emergency shelters or transitional housing.

“I think it would be naive of us to think this escalating situation will not come to Agoura Hills,” Mayor Bill Koehler told The Acorn.

“While the council has not had a chance to discuss the recent woman’s testimony . . . it would be my recommendation to my colleagues that, at the very least , we identify ‘safe zones’ within the city where people forced to live out of their vehicles can feel safe from harm,” Koehler said.

At the August Agoura Hills meeting, council members offered advice to the homeless woman that included contacting Many Mansions to help her find housing, and using the services of Manna Conejo Valley Food Bank in Thousand Oaks. City Councilmember Linda Northrup suggested the woman purchase a low-cost day pass at the Calabasas Tennis and Swim Center to use their showers.

Close to home

Agoura Hills resident Wayne Blaufuss said that while on a recent hike in the Agoura/Las Virgenes road vicinity of Calabasas he was surprised to see a homeless encampment “hidden in plain sight.”

“The guy, Tom, who many residents know and like, had solar panels, car batteries, piles and piles of used bottles, radio equipment, cardboard, tarps and an incredible amount of garbage,” Blaufuss said. “It was a hazardous waste site, hiding in plain sight, but actually in plain sight.”

Blaufuss said he reported the encampment to a park ranger, filed a report at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station and even called the Los Angeles County Supervisor’s office out of fear that the encampment, which was surrounded by dry brush and trees, posed a fire hazard.

Blaufuss visited the encampment and had a chat with Tom.

“(Tom’s) a nice old guy, he’s not dangerous and I didn’t feel threatened,” Blaufuss said. “He said others come and go, but that he’s been there for about 10 years.”

When Blaufuss returned to the site a short while later, a cleanup of the area was underway and Tom was gone.

“I’m worried about this poor guy. I’m responsible for evicting him. I really feel bad, but this can’t exist because of fire danger.” Blaufuss said.

Help on the way

Lutheran Social Services of Ventura County offers comprehensive assistance for the homeless in the Conejo Valley. The group operates the Conejo Valley Meal and Winter Shelter, Homeless 2 Home, and also provides short-term emergency assistance to vulnerable indiviuals and families.

Services for the homeless and near-homeless include grocery packs, lunches and hot meals, clothing, gas vouchers, eviction protection, even prescription assistance and dental services.

Manna Conejo Valley Food Bank has been feeding the hungry for more than 40 years. Manna has identified more than 20,000 people in the Conejo Valley who are in need of assistance. Hunger, the group says, has changed dramatically in recent years because of the rise of the working poor, who, despite holding down one or more jobs, cannot make ends meet.

Who they are

In the 2018 Ventura County repor t , males made up the largest homeless population at 72 percent versus 27 percent for women.

Non-Hispanics represented 59 percent of the homeless population. Those who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino comprised 32 percent. Others said they didn’t know their ethnicity, and some refused to be surveyed at all.

Recommendations on how cities should respond to homelessness was provided in the report, including a push for each city to conduct their own count of homeless individuals, families and veterans.

Another recommendation offered in the report was that cities promote a zero-tolerance policy for children living in streets, cars or encampments.

While the number of individuals experiencing homelessness rose in 2018, the count of homeless families fell dramatically. This year, only six families were counted as unsheltered, compared to 47 in 2013, followed by a decline each year thereafter. In 2017, 12 families were counted as homeless.

“As to long-term solutions, this is something all the cities in our region need to meet and discuss as it affects our entire region, not just Agoura Hills,” Koehler said.