Homeless eager to move into camp

[original article]

They may get permission to stay at beach 30 days, maybe more

By Kevin Clerici, kclerici@VenturaCountyStar.com
December 5, 2004

A band of determined individuals recently uprooted from illegal camps in the Ventura riverbed is on the cusp of moving into what few thought possible: a temporary, legal camp at a popular state beach campground near the Ventura River mouth.

In a deal believed to be the first of its kind, state parks officials would grant a 30-day stay for up to 30 people at an Emma Wood State Beach group camp west of Ventura.

The tent camp would be home to a select group of 30 homeless people lovingly self-described as the "dirty 30" who have drafted a stringent set of camp rules and elected a governing body to enforce them.

The tent camp would provide a safe, alternative haven to the city's winter warming shelter at the National Guard Armory and would be within walking or biking distance of many of the community's social services programs.

State officials could extend the group permit for two additional months if the campsite remains drug-free, has appropriate monitoring and adequate insurance, and residents comply with the requirements, said Steffani Jarrett, superintendent of California State Parks in the Channel Coast District, which includes Ventura.

"We'll give it a shot for 30 days," she said. "If everything works fine, then we'll look at renegotiating to go for longer."

Jarrett said visitors to group camps typically are allowed to stay for up to two weeks.

Such an arrangement has never existed in Ventura County, nor at any other state beach in California, to Jarrett's knowledge, and comes at a time when other California cities are making headlines for trying to transport their homeless populations out of town.

"These folks deserve a chance," Jarrett said.

That's all Loretta and Ted Burk want. The Burks are among 150 to 200 Ventura River bed residents uprooted last week by city officials because of the danger of winter rains, unsanitary conditions and fires.

"You give us an opportunity and we're going to make this work," said Loretta Burk, 36, a Ventura native and former caregiver who last lived under a roof nine years ago. "It will work, I promise you."

The idea for the camp evolved from a string of public meetings involving city officials, volunteers, business owners and, at times, more than 30 homeless individuals, designed to encourage and challenge the riverbed residents to find solutions to their problems.

The temporary group camp has the full support of Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, who personally worked with the group on several occasions and vowed that if they could produce a plan for a safe, secure and clean camp, the city would be willing to pay some of the costs.

"I have been absolutely impressed with the determination and active participation these individuals have displayed," he said.

City officials and leaders of local nonprofit Turning Point Foundation, which would provide sponsorship, insurance, and some personnel under the arrangement, are expected to meet early this week to iron out final details with Dec. 13 as a target date to open the camp.

Among the unresolved issues is the exact expense for the 30-day trial effort, which likely will cost upward of $10,000.

The state wants $4,000 for a state park ranger to monitor the campground.

It also wants staff from Turning Point to be on site during the day, chemical toilets to be brought in and all gray water to be collected.

Clyde Reynolds, executive director of Turning Point, will ask for his board's support Tuesday. He feels the camp falls under the nonprofit's mission and is confident a deal can be struck. Public donations would be helpful, he said.

"Everyone is negotiating positively," said Reynolds, a driving force behind the camp who has emerged as one of the river dwellers most outspoken advocates.

Paul Lindhard, a local artist, Chaz Marr, a local architect, and Paul and Dana Paulinski are other volunteers who have played a critical role.

Although many homeless individuals choose to live outside a structured environment, Dana Paulinski said this group of about 30 have set themselves apart.

"They want the help, are asking for help, and are willing to do the work," she said.

To prove their serious intentions, the group has drafted a mission statement, a rigorous code of conduct and a social contract that each person would have to agree to before being allowed in.

Among the rules listed in the group's code of conduct are no visitors after 10 p.m., no alcohol or drugs, no violence, no ground fires and no loud music.

Each individual would have to be screened for tuberculosis and have no outstanding warrants. To enforce the rules, the group has elected a governing council from among its community.

All members of the 30-person community would serve duty as a camp monitor.

They have even given it a name: River Haven.

Officials like Cole believe the camp might be a model effort --and could lead to a permanent location to offer homeless individuals transitional housing.

No one expects it to be easy, particularly the homeless individuals who recognize the camp would face intense scrutiny.

"Let's face it, we're going to be in a fishbowl," said James Trapani, who would move in with his wife, Thelma, and two young boys. "But it's worth it. This is our chance."

Anyone who wishes to donate can call 652-1326.