A Hand Up and Not a Hand Out

On Homelessness in Santa Paula

February 18, 2012

Begging in the streets is an ancient tradition. People of various diminished capacities have occupied the public squares or sat outside city gates to cry out for money.  That scene  is probably not much different on the streets of America—or Santa Paula.

Our city has an ordinance against aggressive panhandling.  Santa Paula has a small number of folks who are successful at this and continue to do it because it works.  Other panhandlers are very passive and simply flash a sign.

Many services are provided in our community which should offset the need for panhandling. Homeless and sheltered folks with addictions and enslavements generally need cash for a very limited number of reasons.

For those with no financial resources, they are in need funds for prescription co-pays, bus fare, telephone minutes, and unfortunately liquor or drugs.

Recently two well-meaning women recently had a conversation on Main Street with a homeless man holding his little dog.  He has been living under the bridge for some time. Thanks to recent regular visits from dedicated volunteers, he is now staying at the Winter Shelter. One woman offered him a $10 bill for food. Sadly, the money will likely go for cigarettes, alcohol or drugs instead. By trying to “do good” in this way, we actually cause harm because we continue to fund bad habits and choices. Those doors have to close before they realize there are no options but seeking real help.

The local Winter Shelter has provided safe sleep for almost 30 persons a night at El Buen Pastor Methodist Church since the winter season began last December 3. More than 100 meals per day are being served which includes a sack lunch for everyone. We have working mothers and several children, disabled men, homeless men and women looking for work. One of the guests has a master’s degree from San Jose State University. She just can’t find a job. We have some guests who come for the evening meal and a shower.

The local transition home has housed at least 8 children and 20 adults over the past two years. They found us on their way to permanent housing.

The Drop-In Center at First United Methodist Church is a welcoming place where homeless and hungry folks can get a warm jacket, hot coffee and snacks and use the computers to connect to other resources. The Center is open weekdays from 9 to noon.

Many Meals is hosted at the First Presbyterian Church where about 650 meals each week are prepared and served to area residents. Thanks to FOOD Share for the past 162 weeks, over 64,000 meals have been served.  By USDA standards, if a family of four would take advantage of Many Meals, they could conserve up to $80 each month—a tank of gas or a utility bill to keep them sheltered and mobile.

The non-profit that supports this work has been approached by the leadership of Children’s Hunger Fund to distribute food supplies through various local churches, and plans are underway to establish a Counseling Center where people can be helped to make lasting change in their lives. Pepperdine University has selected Santa Paula’s work as a study project in their non-profit funding studies.

Sending homeless people on a bus to anywhere or simply changing their environment will not solve their problems. Changing their hearts will. These folks are battered by life and, in many cases, their own bad choices over a lifetime. The goal is to provide the tools to make good changes last.

There are at least two local panhandlers who have gathered the wrong kind of attention. One of them is a non-hearing or speaking young woman whose name has been manufactured because we don’t know who she is.  She knows “street sign language,” an informal sign language known to only a few. We have arranged for a specialist in street signing at Santa Barbara City College to communicate with her.

She is very animated when she attempts to communicate, and her behavior appears aggressive. Sometimes it is as demonstrated in a recent incident with bystanders at a local store. There are a few others who flash signs at grocery stores to gather money for prescription medications.

If you are tempted to give a panhandler something, purchase gift cards at MacDonald for $1. It gets them a hamburger meal after 11 am. Please don’t give cash.

There is a new view floating around Ventura that providing services extends the problem of homelessness. In our view, ceasing to provide services would make a bad situation worse. The goal is to keep homeless people from dying in the streets. It has happened more than once in our community. This particular work began when a homeless man from Santa Paula died in one of our churches.

It is a challenge to work effectively with homeless people and help them find that better way. It can’t all be done in a day and we wish it was for just a season. The work will likely continue in our town until every person who wants a job can get one. Til then, as hard as it is at times, we will continue to find new partners and joy in the service.

Most important, special thanks goes to the members of the Santa Paula Police Department who have the very difficult task of balancing the right combination of thoughtful care and duty to protect all citizens.  We have so much respect and appreciation for their diligent exercise of training and individual talents to make our community safe.






The State of Homelessness in Santa Paula

On the Other Hand

By Kay Wilson-Bolton

October 5, 2013


There are less homeless people in Santa Paula today than three years ago. The numbers have gone to more than 90 to around 30. They are what I call “hard core” homeless.

With some exceptions, most homeless people are choosing it over being housed in safe and clean places because of their drug and alcohol addictions. Plain and simple.

The SPIRIT of Santa Paula operated the winter shelter for homeless folks for three years. We chose to discontinue that program in 2012-2013. Our goal when we began in 2009 was to end homelessness. During the first two years we housed many children and single parents which was during the most difficult economic period. During the last year of operation, while there were some exceptions, addiction ranked high of the list causing homelessness.

It became apparent to the Board that we with great effort on the part of volunteers, simple making people comfortable in winter who were unwilling to help themselves and mark the hard decision and tackle the work necessary to change their lives.

We met with many of them and explained why we were closing the shelter and prepared them in September of 2011 to seek alternatives. Some of them entered the shelter programs in Oxnard for mothers and children at the Lighthouse and the men went to the Salvation Army, the Armory and Rescue Mission.

Many of them hunkered down into the river bed and suffered through the winter with terrible colds, teeth ache and catered to their addictions.

There has been a spike in panhandling since then. Many of the beggars you see on the street corners and at Von’s have addictions. If you give them money, you might as well give them their next fix.

We told them we were not abandoning them but when they were ready to change their life, we would be there for them. We have been and we are.

Some of them are in counseling and treatment programs and some of them are working hard at staying clean and sober. Some have put themselves on calendar at the court and done their jail time and entered rehab programs.

For three years, SPIRIT managed Richard’s House, a transitional homeless shelter on the edge of town. During that time, we served 59 people ranging from our two newborns to women over 70 years ago. Fifteen of them were under the age of 15. They were truly and legitimately homeless.

To my knowledge through today, no one from that prior of time is on the streets. Most of them have found permanent shelter and many of them have jobs. Some are in campers and garages but not hiding behind dumpsters.

On September 30, 2013, Richard’s House officially closed.  It is not because the need ended but because we were not equipped as a small non-profit to adequately case manage each resident. We were not monitoring their daily schedules and following up with job interviews, doctor’s appointment and programs.  Because of that some of them stayed a few weeks beyond their allotted time and left when we got very aggressive in monitoring their progress.

SPIRIT has reorganized our services and are working closer with individuals and local churches in small group settings and individual counseling sessions to see how to live the life God designed for them.  We have found counselors and two trainees serving in the Valley Biblical Counseling Center. There is no charge for services.

Our drop-in center at the First Christian Church is expanding hours and services to help connect people with resources and services currently offered through the County which includes “stop smoking” programs, mental health, dental care, prescription assistance and others. Soon, nutrition classes will be offered during the day to help mothers prepare healthier foods and stem the overwhelming tides of childhood obesity and diabetes.

The Many Meals program at the First Presbyterian Church provides a hot meal for anyone who wants one. We serve about 600 meals each week to hungry families who by USDA standards can save $80/month for a family of four if they eat with each Wednesday.  That’s a tank of gas or a utility bill. Some of the river people come for dinner; so do a few of our local business people.

We partner with the County in distributing literature on services for which they are eligible, the Rescue Mission, United Way for utility and rental assistance, Cal Fresh, USDA food supplies and cell phones.  We are focused on healthy families so life is easier at home and kids do better in school.

We are the refrigerator connection in town. Many landlords do not provide refrigerators so we help people connect with one so they can live a normal life in a habitable dwelling.

The entire matter of drugs and alcohol should alarm us.  We all need to be educated on the effect of having a methadone clinic in our community providing daily doses of substitute legal drugs to addicts.

Santa Paula also has a needle exchange program, controversial to most everyone. That question is always simple. Do we want our drug addict to use dirty needles and spread HEP C and HIV among other diseases? Or, do we prefer to have our addicts use clean needles and not spread them.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a major cause of society‘s meltdown and must be a contributor to our increasing violence and gang activity.

Harbor Church in Ventura is under attack by the neighborhood for the element it is attracting by serving the chronic homeless population. All the elements that concern those neighbors are fair.  They were asked by the planning commission to take on the task of managing their homeless visitors with the goal of ending homelessness. The response was that is not the call of the church to take on that function.

I couldn’t disagree more. The Bible is very clear on the role of the Church in helping our brothers and sisters, admonishing and teaching them, and restoring them.  It is also clear about helping the poor as it is on what happens to lazy people.  If the church shepherds people within it, there must be way for Harbor Church to work within that structure to manage them. Delivering “no strings attached” services just doesn’t work.

The good news is our real homeless population is less than half of what it was. The count in 2007 was 97, in 2009 it was 91; in 2010 the number dropped to 54; it dropped again in 2011 to 50; it spiked in 2012 to 60 for unknown reasons and dramatically dropped in 2012 to 34 people.  That should be considered progress.

Most of our homeless are second and third generation Santa Paulans who wore out their families trying to deal with their additions. Someone of our homeless men and women have mental issues and have deeply troubled souls. The hear voices and live with great fear. This adds to the problem of homelessness and demands on public safety personel.

There is someone dear to me in this work who has managed to hold herself above the tragic events that circle a home where addicts live. She has lost brothers and sisters and a niece. She has family in prison and cares for her mother who lives with a broken heart over the devastation drugs has unleashed upon her family.

She is a woman who despite all odds is a good and capable citizen, caring for her family, getting them all to school and church where good foundations for the future are laid by a caring teachers, administrators, and a pastor who encourages and preaches the Good News about redemption and how old things can pass away and all things can become new.

It can be done but hardly alone. It takes many support systems to prop up the one who is in front.

Our pastoral and counseling work has led us to families who visit their children in prison and pray for them while they try to care for and feed their grandchildren.

The issue of drug and alcohol addiction as it relates to homelessness and gang activity is no small problem in this community of ours and it didn’t happen in a short time.

However, it has accelerated in a short time and we have been surprised by the overt fearless demonstration of violence. It has not surprised the families who live in fear of very bad possibilities and the realities of wrenching outcomes. It breaks hearts of parents and grandparents and devastates children who don’t know where to look for stability, safety, consistency and genuine love.

I’m supporting our new Chief of Police, Steve McLean, and praying with many church leaders that he can return us to a time when we can sit on porches again and children can play safely in parks and the streets. Hopefully to a time when our grandparents can dream dreams again and our children have hope for a future free of violence.

We must provide a community that stops robbing children of being a child in a small community that is safe to play and learn and grow.

Kay Wilson-Bolton is the volunteer director of SPIRIT of Santa Paula, the advocates for homeless and hungry families.

The new link between homelessness and mental illness

The City of Santa Paula is experiencing an alarming increase in crime from members of our homeless population. There are assaults and fearless attempts to rob and steal for their next beer or fix. Begging is on the rise. They are sleeping closer to town and pee and poop where they will.

We are at crisis stage. The level of violence among street people is leading to elevated police response and with heightened public scrutiny all around, this is a situation we must avoid. In my view, the new level of violence is fueled by the lack of housing for people living on the street and from mental illness due to drug and alcohol abuse.

A mental disorder or mental illness is a mental or behavioral pattern that causes either suffering or a poor ability to function in ordinary life. As our culture progresses, disorders becomes more numerous often, in my opinion, creating excuses for poor behavior. For example, in the latest version of the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), doctors have labeled road rage as a disorder and given it a new name, “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” affecting up to 16 million Americans.

Since Christmas Eve 2008, when we found a homeless man dead in one of our churches, I have come to know many of our homeless people like family. We have fed them, counseled them, sheltered and housed them, buried several, visited them in jails and hospitals and cried with and over them.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports that there is a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances”. Mental health disorder patients are responsible for the consumption of 38 percent of the alcohol, 44 percent of the cocaine and 40 percent of all cigarettes. People who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder are responsible for the consumption of 69 percent of alcohol, 84 percent of cocaine, and 68 percent of cigarettes.
There’s a connection between substance abuse and mental health disorders, and any number of combinations can develop.
A necessary component of treatment is housing of some kind to get them off the street and manage their recovery. A nexus is needed for those who have moved to Methadone treatment so there is an automatic plan to taper down the doses.

I make no excuses for my homeless people, and I am an advocate for their care and restoration. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t made a bad choice in our lives. Fortunately not all bad choices led to others or did permanent damage. There are many from all walks of life who daily make the ultimate devastating choices, for whatever reasons, to drink excessively and use drugs.

A recent public statement was, “homeless people are criminals.” Not all are and certainly not all criminals are homeless. The reality is that many suffer from mental illness because of their addictions impairing their decision-making process. This can lead to homelessness and compound criminal activity.

Economic homelessness can be solved and there are success stories everywhere. The subset of that is homelessness stemming from the impact of mental illness, whatever the cause. It is hard to solve and requires new strategies.

The criminal activity of homeless people ranges from petty theft to armed robbery, intimidation of bystanders, compromised uses of public facilities and tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars on many levels. This includes the awarding of social security dollars to many who have self-inflicted health issues and the expensive cost of medical treatments in our urgent care facilities and ER’s.

One young man pretends to throw himself in front of cars and yells at pedestrians about fighter jets. A young homeless woman on meth gave birth recently to a baby who was taken by CPS. The mother is coming undone and believes in a conspiracy between the police and hospital staff.

The treatment of homeless people who are mentally ill must include housing. Neither problem can be solved without the ultimate collaboration of Mental Health Services and housing providers. Here’s how it goes.

Give someone a shower, clean clothes, a meal, a bed and a case manager. Housing makes homelessness easier to solve than to manage. A famous case study was reported in The New Yorker, February 13, 2006. It is titled “Million-Dollar Murray”. The study claims that a small number of chronic homeless people cause a large drain on social services. It also shows it is less expensive to house them than it is to chase them. I don’t mean place them into an apartment and give them the keys. A treatment program, structure, counseling, and case management 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is required.

In one specific 18-hour period in Santa Paula in May, one homeless woman was transported by police, fire and ambulance three times and treated in the emergency rooms of two County Hospitals. She is an addict and has transitioned to Methadone. She received extraordinary treatment in the hospital for almost three weeks for her chronic illnesses. When she was almost well she was discharged with nowhere to go but the streets. She misses follow-up appointments, loses her prescriptions, and can’t keep her sores clean. She is nearly back where she started. The cost to taxpayers is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Imagine the cost over the last 25 years of her homelessness.

We need people on street who are the warm fire that draws them in. Partners and response teams need to be trained professionals who know who to call and where to go when someone is ready for sobriety. Clinicians need to be on scene–not in an office hoping someone drops in.

Failure to provide the team power at the entry level has brought us to the hard task we face now. Bits and pieces of good work are being done but there is a disconnect in some. One is that not all communities have the resources to deal with the problem. This is especially critical since the central winter shelter in Oxnard has been terminated for 2015. Unless a community provides one, homeless people will be on streets this winter–in all communities. This will elevate the need for police and fire services.

The Mental Health Services family must convene a task force to address the specific issues that communities face within the homeless population fueled by drug and alcohol addictions and develop pro-active strategies that include housing. They must also bring trained clinicians into our schools to deal with children facing suicide and depression. They need to help parents struggling with financial stresses and all the issues facing our culture. Santa Paula deserves financial and resource parity with every other community.

No entity is better equipped or informed than this County’s Behavioral Health system. The approach needs to be radical to achieve radical and positive outcomes. The goal is to solve a problem that affects the whole community—business owners, children, public safety and relieve the taxpayers who are funding millions annually to treat and transport. We need to treat the whole person.

When there is both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse issue, it is important that the patient enroll in a treatment program that addresses both problems at the same time. The untreated symptoms of a mental health disorder can cause the patient to be unable to remain clean and sober, and untreated substance abuse issues can make mental health treatment ineffective.

I often feel crushed with the weight of human need from our homeless people. The need now is the heavy artillery and chariots of trained professionals who will work until it’s done. It won’t take long–just money and talent and commitment.

I wonder why love isn’t enough. Why isn’t the family tie or the memories of affection, security, holidays, birthdays and graduations enough to motivate an addict to and seek sobriety? Why do they love the drug more than the people who love them most.

I have wondered that since our own daughter, Kathy, died of a drug overdose in 2006. What would have made the difference in her last day, or in the days preceding that one?

I pray the hope and encouragement I offer will make a life-changing difference in someone’s last day. I know that if I fail to try I will answer for it.

Daddy, are we homeless yet?

February 23, 2009

It seemed like a simple trip from Santa Ynez to Fillmore for a family funeral for Mark and his little boy. It meant a day out of school for a sad occasion, but an outing together nonetheless.

Mark’s friend lives in Ventura and they decided to spend the night so that the last leg made in the morning would be less hectic.
Mark and his son left Ventura about 7:30 am and they planned to stop at MacDonald’s. He had $15 to last to the end of the month and they spent $8 of it at breakfast. Foolish he knew, but rarely did he have a day out with his son.

Near Hallock Drive, something happened to the car. It was raining and a little dreary. Mark’s car began to slide into a large truck in the lane next to him. A car behind them both struck mark’s car. The little boy was wrenched in his seatbelt and the air bag’s exploded

Santa Paula’s medical team and Fire Department were dispatched within seconds. The passengers were transported to Santa Paula Hospital Emergency Room. The calm one was 8 years old.

Dad knew that someone needed to be called but his cell phone was in the car. While the Fire Department had searched for it, it was not to be found. Mark was not able to remember anyone’s phone numbers but could remember the name of his son’s elementary school. They were able to provide emergency phone numbers needed to summon help.

Mark called several people but no one answered. No one knew about the car accident and no was standing by to help this family. The ER doctor insisted the patients remain for a while for observation

At about 2 pm, the pair was released from the ER. They sat in the waiting room wondering how they would get back home and how they would get their personal items from the car.

A local Chaplain heard about their plight and agreed to take them home. They first went to McCoy’s Automotive to see the car. It had been moved to a remote location for storage and a nice man guided them. It was raining by now, the windows in the car were smashed and there was no power to close them.

Fortunately, the cell phone was found up under the seat. In 30 minutes, all their personal items had been removed and they were headed home. Their car was a total loss and Mark had no damage insurance for his own car.

Mark was not on able to reach his son’s mother, his parents were too sick to make the drive. His brother did not get off work until 5 pm and could not be reached either.

There was only one thing to do and that was for someone to take them back to Santa Ynez. On the way, reality began to reveal itself. Only $7 remained for the 11 days left in the month, this month’s rent had not been paid, and their car had been demolished. How would Mark make his doctor’s appointments? How would he look for a job? How would his son get to school?

The son was very concerned about what would happen to his dad and their belongings. He soon asked, “Dad, does this mean we will be homeless?”
No one answered his question, including me. It is now the end of the month. There by now must be no money; there is no car, there never was a job; the first of the month is here again.

On their way out of town at the gas station, the ambulance crew was on a move-up and recognized the riders. They made their way to the car to greet them and wished them well.
This family was changed by their day in Santa Paula. Most of it was good; some of it was problematic and they clearly could have been dead.

What it points to is the fragile circumstance people encounter when they have no margin for error. They live in an affordable housing complex paying $1100 in rent. They are on the waiting list for Section 8 which is 3-4 years out.

Their resources are tapped and there is no safety net. So goes their story. For them it is now way day at a time and the future is not promising. Did they cause some of their problems they face. Probably. Didn’t we all?