A Town Turned Upside Down

Ventura business owners get active against vagrancy

By Lori Denman-Underhill

Peirano’s Market, Facebook

In the long run, there may be a method to the madness of homeless vagrancy. Tactics to decrease endless crime may be shown to the city by local business owners of Ventura, who are aiming to take back their town.

There are numerous businesses that are speaking up against vagrancy issues. This article features input from Jim Rice with Peirano’s Market; John Silva of DuPuis and Ventura Chamber of Commerce; Tina Thayer of Paradise Pantry; David Pu’u, CEO of Ocean Ohana and Jonathan Pu’u, founder of Pu’u Muay Thai.These businesses will be meeting up soon as a group called, “The Change Machine.” It is simply a forum for business owners to meet and discuss common complaints of vagrant crime and goals to make their city safe and clean. There is also another local group, Quality of Life Ventura, who share similar goals.

Ventura business owners Jim Rice and Ventura Chamber of Commerce chair John Silva, both local residents, are recruiting business owners to “take back our town” by decreasing violent vagrancy and join their group, The Change Machine.

Rice has been a resident and local business owner in Ventura for the past 16 years. Primarily involved in the restaurant business, he was a partner in Watermark on Main Street and was the executive director of the Bell Arts Factory. Rice and his partner Linda Jordan, are currently in the process of reopening the historic Peirano’s Market and Delicatessen on Main Street across from the mission. The couple is thrilled to represent the return of this marketplace to Ventura, which is part of the Revitalization Project of Mission Park and Figueroa Plaza.

The revitalization of this of this area is in collaboration with the city and Downtown Ventura Partners organization. Rice envisions this project as a fitting effort for all Ventura locals and other local business owners who want to join their mission to make the Mission Park and Figueroa Plaza be a place where families come to visit and enjoy its historic and natural beauty. Rice and other business owners along Main Street long for the return of peaceful parks where families feel safe to take their children, and not be overwhelmed with vagrancy issues and open drug use.

Needles found outside of Rice’s business on Main St. Photo by Jim Rice

John Silva, a partner in a business downtown, is the president and senior creative director of DuPuis and also Chair of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce.

“Part of my concern is not just because I live here, but because my employees feel unsafe,” Silva explained. “We have had our share of incidents when employees ask to be escorted to their cars, and that is pathetic that they have to experience that uneasiness and violence. Recently, we had a man sitting in the hallway of our business, smoking pot outside our door. He then started to harass one of our female employees and even called her on the phone repeatedly. I called the police and there was no response.”

Silva joined the chamber’s Political Action Committee (PAC), in an effort to analyze the vagrancy issues. He sees this group as being a beneficial way as a local business owner to express time and energy, and have some influence over local elected officials and how they become elected.

“I enjoy being involved and I am hoping to do the work and try to be part of a solution, as opposed to a person who thinks things aren’t very good and wants to complain,” Silva explained. “That is not how I want to be a part of my community. I joined the PAC to be a solutions guy.”

Town Taking a Turn for the Worse with Vagrants

Once upon a time, there was a subset of homeless people wandering throughout Ventura who were peaceful, who did not seek to cause crime and also asked for, and accepted, programs and services.

Now, it appears as if the majority of persons in this category are not seeking or accepting help, programs or services, as stated by members of Salvation Army’s Sandra Troxell. Troxell and the Ventura Police Department’s Patrol Task Force work with the homeless on a daily basis and this is their informed opinion. The vagrants are refusing programs or services to help get them off the streets.

These days, it is evident to many business owners that times have since changed, and the city may be taking a turn for the worse, due to the behaviors of vagrants (homeless or not). Business owners and the police see a steady rise in crime and sometimes, what seems to be a total disregard for community.

“One of the problems as I see it is that we refer to everyone on the street as ‘homeless’ and it is much more complicated than that,” Rice said. “For many this is a chosen lifestyle that is laced with drug use and criminal activity, mostly theft. Behavior is what we should focus on, not the labels.”

Silva said that homeless advocates and groups are doing great work with programs and services. However, he sees an increasing drug business in town, led by a subset of homeless vagrants. He sees drug deals go down in the daylight hours on Main Street in front of his business.

Pipe left behind, near business on Main St. Photo by Jim Rice

“Our city has become so accepting of homelessness under the wide banner of compassion, that we let so much stuff happen under our eyes as if it is okay. Many people say, ‘they are hurting and disadvantaged.’ Well, you know what? There are more hurting and disadvantaged people that we should help, that actually want the help. All the rest of them, including the guys who are dive bombing our intersections on red lights with their skateboards, throwing them around and laughing about it… it’s low level criminal behavior but it is a nuisance.”

Complex Problem of Many Parts

“I think that the words, ‘homeless,’ and ‘vagrancy’ are two separate pieces of language with different issues and should be referred as such,” Silva explained in an effort to address solutions with clarity. “As a public health and safety issue, we have to pull them apart. We have to separate vagrancy and crime problems from homelessness. I am not a huge data guy, but I have heard from sources that 40 percent of arrests for crime in Ventura are for those who are homeless.” (See data here on this figure, in interview with Chief Ken Corney).

Silva also stated that the problem may mostly be with the service-resistant homeless vagrants, an issue also covered in this prior article.

“This whole compassion thing is important and it is important to me too, but I noticed that there are already a lot of available programs and services in town, that are not being accepted,” Silva added. “However, my compassion runs low when people reject sensible, good help.”

Silva took to the streets and handed out cards to homeless people, that listed programs and services including Salvation Army and other shelters. When someone begged him for money he said, “You know what, it’s really not supported behavior to panhandle down here (in downtown Ventura). It’s certainly not helping the larger problem when I give you money. Here is a card with services that can help you.”

Half of these people took the card and threw it on the ground. This experience opened Silva’s eyes. His mind raced and thought, “you didn’t lose your house in the last year or two, experience a string of bad luck and really want help.” The process showed Silva that there are two separate problems – homeless people who need and accept help and homeless service resistant vagrants who may cause crime.

The problem of vagrancy and homelessness is complex and has many faces including mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, affordable housing and just plain old bad luck, Rice believes. It is this complexity that causes people to be overwhelmed and do nothing.

“Let’s start with clean and safe,” Rice pleaded. “Let’s address the crime and drug issues first and then maybe we can see clearly enough to help those that want to be helped.

“We need to be more assertive in our enforcement of law. They can choose to live this lifestyle until it starts to impact our community in a negative way with crime and total disregard for the environment. We are well past that point and need to get serious about changing it before it gets even worse.”

David Pu’u, CEO of Ocean Ohana which operates Betty Belts, a female owned and operated specialty fashion retail at Fir and Main Street downtown, agreed. “You have to look at the history of the problem. A classic example are the projects up on top of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. You put all the people up there in that assisted housing, and it turns out to be one huge, festering open sore of crime. You can’t even park your car by your three million dollar home, you have to leave your windows down because the vagrants are too stupid to try the door that you leave open.”

Silva described present day San Francisco and said the encounters the most aggressive homeless vagrant panhandlers who literally grab your arm after you hand them five bucks on the street. Is this what Ventura wants, after providing them a place to live with no rules or sobriety?

The type of crime hitting San Francisco has also been existing in Hawaii, Pu’u’s land of origin. There is an extremely high poverty rate, where the crimes of opportunity occur with the tourists. In order to ensure that these “crimes of opportunity” do not take place, Pu’u explains that there are two choices – remove the opportunity or you remove the criminal.

“If you house a bunch of people who have no reason to abide by the law and there is no fear of the law, there is no threat there… if you house them in an area where you have businesses, tourism and children recreating, what do you think is going to happen? You create more opportunity, so you will get more crime.”

Lucas Zucker of CAUSE stated in this prior article, “Ventura Homelessness, The Present of More Presence,” that the police are “making the problem worse,” and that more police is not needed.

“They (the police) are not the problem, they are the solution,” Rice replied to this accusation. “Their hands are tied to a great degree, due to policies and other legislation that has come down the line. They need to be out there. Statistics show that if you continue to police, they [the vagrants and crime committing homeless] get tired of it. They go somewhere else or they stop committing the behavior. We must hold people accountable for breaking the law.”

Another solution offered by advocates is for the community to help the homeless who are “from here” (Ventura and surrounding areas). Rice claims that after speaking with the police the subset of the homeless causing the problems, the vagrants, are not from here.

“The difficulty is that we are the county seat,” Rice said. “If you get thrown in or get out of a jail, you are in Ventura. If you get out of a mental health center, you are in Ventura. If you are released from a medical facility and have relied on medical services, you are in Ventura. You have no way to get home and have no help from surrounding cities. We are the dumping ground. Ventura has become the dumping ground, creating a burden financially and straining our services.”

Aggressive panhandlers receiving handouts by the community and tourists has become what Silva calls, “a collective tolerance,” and what Rice and Silva call, “enabling vagrancy.”

The Long Road Ahead

“I’m a hugely optimistic guy, but I am not just going to sit back and watch this stuff happen,” Silva said. “We need to get a little more angry and active, so we can make change. We are asking business owners who are being impacted by this problem, to join us in the Change Machine.” 

As Chair of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and a PAC member, Silva is establishing and rekindling relationships and opening dialogue with Ventura City Council members and other officials to work on change. This includes City Manager Dan Paranick, Community Development Director Jeff Lambertand others. He also recruited Stephanie Caldwell, the CEO of the chamber, into the Change Machine.

Regarding public safety, Rice believes that the reason vagrants are congregated in local parks and plazas is because the community is not. That people do not feel clean and safe and that is exactly what needs to change. He is aiming to make the change.

As an example to this process, Rice joined Jordan and DVO (Downtown Ventura), and approached the principal at Holy Cross school. They inquired why the school and its children were not using the park for recess and instead using the asphalt as a playground.

“The principal told me that it was not safe,” Rice explained with disappointment. “That was just absurd to me. We went to work on it with the help of the city, police and DVO. Today we have children playing in the park five days per week. It just takes effort and leadership.”

Regarding the vagrants who are refusing programs or services to help get them off the streets and also commit endless crimes, will they continue to commit crimes? How does the city demand to stop this?

Well, Rice thinks he has an answer. He and other local business owners are currently holding meetings and thinking about how to best be part of the “Change Machine” in the town they call home.

Inherent problems must be addressed, in order to discuss the many issues and solve the problems of crime and vagrancy. This includes “City Council facing the music,” Rice said. “We can’t sweep the problems under a rug, they need to be brought out in the open, despite the fears of driving away tourists. It also does not help to repeatedly call others uncaring, unsympathetic, or said to ‘spread hate’ (said others, including CAUSE’s Zucker), when discussing the problematic issues. By bringing the issues out in the open and also showing a presence, this would be a great start.”

“We are in the 14tthyear of the city’s ‘10 Year Plan to End Homelessness’ and that right there says it all to me,” Rice said in closing with concern. “We are worse off. Arrest the criminals. If you get them off the streets, you will find the homeless person who needs help.”

Other Ventura Business Owners Speak Up

Logo, Facebook

Jonathan Pu’u, founder and chief instructor of Pu’u Muay Thai, believes that not all homeless vagrants are a problem and that mental health issues of the homeless needs to be addressed with solutions. The moments when Pu’u has called the police regarding emptying of trash cans all over the streets behind his business during late night hours, he believes it was a vagrant with mental health issues.

“Not all of the vagrants are a nuisance, I have one gentleman that is obviously out on his luck who always asks before rummaging in our recycling bin,” Pu’u said. “He actually helped clean up the bin that was caught on fire when he saw me cleaning it up. For the vagrants in midtown, it’s hit or miss, the regulars seem to be okay but you do get the occasional new person to the area that has some obvious mental health issues.”

The trash bin in front of Pu’u’s business that was set on fire might have been ignited by a homeless vagrant, who was never caught. This person set fire to other business trash bins.

“Came to find out that there were numerous fires set that night including at some residence in the midtown area,” Pu’u explained. “This wasn’t too long after Thomas Fire ripped through our town and I was pretty upset that someone would hit the community with arson. Mental health issues perhaps, but it didn’t sit right with us.”

Solutions were also discussed by Pu’u. “Midtown is a ghost town at night, rarely do I see patrol from police there at night and I live in the area. As far as city counsel goes, maybe figure out some mental health outreach in the area. More community outreach at the places that provide free meals for the vagrants in the area perhaps? We have a ton of creatives in the community, I’m sure we could all put an awesome program together to work towards.”

Tina Thayer, co-owner of Paradise Pantry with Kelly Briglio also commented on the homeless vagrancy issues and how they affect the business.

Thayer said, “It’s been a problem in Ventura forever. Everyone is more on edge and aware. Many locals do not go downtown and tourists avoid the areas where they feel uncomfortable walking in. When security recently occupied Mission Park, I noticed a significant difference in the drop of vagrant crime.”

Thayer sees the homeless issue as sensitive, since some have lost their residence and need services, while others commit crime. She believes that more programs and services for different types of homeless persons would help. Also, it may help to work towards reuniting them with family members.

“The ones that don’t want help are being dealt with and be arrested or something,” Thayer added. “There’s so much more of a presence around of them. There’s always more of them showing up. It’s a long way to go. It’s easier to live out here on the street, the weather is nice. I’m from Chicago.”

What is the Change Machine and when will the group be meeting? More on this topic soon, along with the discussion of enabling vagrancy, in Citizens Journal.

Homeless vagrants on Main Street. Photo by Jim Rice.

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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8 Responses to A Town Turned Upside Down

  1. Bruce Boyer June 11, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    There are solutions; Remove the criminal element. T#1 They do not want to go to jail; they lose their shopping cart of stuff. No access to drugs booze or cigarettes when in jail or ‘collect’n benefits”. so jail has to be real. IF it becomes real; they will avoid what will land them in jail. Right now jail is an illusion. When it becomes real; the numbers in jail will drop as they do whatever they can to avoid it. #2 Remove them. It is far cheaper to put 75 vagrants on a bus and take them to San Bernardino, give them a free lunch, a gift card and even some weed or booze and deliver them to say SB. The cost of that is a fraction of the monthly cost to the taxpayers for having the vagrants here. Ten bus loads removes 750 vagrants. If we send one bus load a day in 30 days we would have 2250 of them gone. That is half of them. #3 Do not just release them at 800 So. Victoria ave at 12:01 AM. Give them the ability to get to other parts of the County. Many released are vagrants and they will of course camp in Ventura. If they have return court dates they will stay right in town. Accelerate the court dates to remedy that problem. This is what a real sheriff can and will do. Which is why I am running for VC Sheriff.

    Reply
  2. Frederico June 10, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Simple and to the point: the line between homelessness and vagrancy is paper-thin, and to most people there is no distinction. What we can agree on though is that either/or stifles business and they present conditions that keep customers, shoppers and sightseers away, which in turn destroys commerce and quality of life. We can argue and debate the issue(s) behind vagrancy until forever, but one thing is crystal clear… there are cities that don’t have this problem to any great extent because they do not tolerate or accept the degradation of their community. I have wonder to what extent politics and ideology affect the rate of vagrancy because it seems to me that the more “progressive” a community is the worse the problem can be.

    Reply
  3. Neil June 9, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    To deter the criminally inclined vagrants, there has to be additional pressure from law enforcement city wide simultaneously on a long term basis. Enforcement of the municipal code (law) is key as well as fixing the use of administrative citations for misdemeanors.

    End the practice of separate court systems for vagrants. It’s not constitutional to have different standards of justice for different people.

    Reply
  4. P J Marshall June 9, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    And when you have no homeless people in your town to blame for all your crime, who will you blame then? Just a thought.

    Reply
    • Citizen Reporter June 9, 2018 at 4:35 pm

      Not hard to figure out since homeless criminal arrests are “only” 40% of the total.

      Reply
    • William Hicks June 10, 2018 at 4:34 pm

      Kind of foolish of you to think that crime is an exclusive realm of homelessness. Crime has many faces. AND here’s the BUT…….I’ve never seen any community with a high number of “vagrants,” one form of the homeless, have a low crime rate.

      Reply
      • William Hicks June 10, 2018 at 4:36 pm

        Actually, this was meant for PJ Marshall.

        Reply
  5. William Hicks June 9, 2018 at 5:44 am

    Coming from an outsider, from Thousand Oaks, I suggest not getting too chummy with your local city counsel. They shoved parking meters down the throats of local business and are tone deaf to your concerns.

    Being in the 14th year of a 10 year program to end homelessness is proof that the city counsel has no real answers to your problems.

    Reply

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