Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Local groups discuss year-round homeless shelter

Please view the below story, which recently appeared in the Ventura County Star.

By Mark Storer
Ventura County Star

A day after the annual homeless count in Ventura County, officials from several agencies met to discuss king the winter warming shelter at the National Guard armory in Ventura a year-round facility.

Dubbed "Gimmee Shelter," Wednesday's meeting was the second since last fall for the group looking to help end homelessness in the county. The meeting included representatives from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Oxnard Commission on Housing and Ventura Social Services Task Force, volunteers and others.

"We've been running the shelter as a winter shelter since 2001," David Fields, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Los Angeles council, said before leading a tour through the shelter. Guests gathered at Barber Volkswagen, which donated its showroom for the event. The showroom is just east of the armory.

"Times were good and we were busy even then, but the need is greater now. It would be great if we could do something to fix that," Fields said.

Marc Melinkovich, the St. Vincent de Paul Society's Ventura shelter manager, said: "This is a year-round issue, not a three-months-out-of-the-year issue. We hosted 160 people two nights ago. Last night, it was 152, and among them was a 10-day-old infant. It's hard to send these people out into the world at the end of March and tell them, 'Good luck.' "

Guests are given an inflatable mattress, a hot shower and a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee.

Melinkovich has been manager for a year.

"We want to alleviate suffering and pain," Fields said of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. "We want to spearhead a year-round shelter and get it up and running. We know that's not going to happen overnight, but we need to start."

It won't come cheap, either. The cost of running the winter shelter is around $300,000 each season, Fields said.

"We're looking at about $1 million to run a year-round shelter," he said. "That's why we need to build support and show people that this is a necessary thing."

Fields said he wants to establish an advisory council on the model of Friends of St. Vincent de Paul groups that provide support at a shelter in Los Angeles and a camp operated in Santa Barbara.

"In order to be an effective shelter, you have to have housing afterward," said Joan Sotiros, who runs the shelter program for St. Vincent de Paul's Los Angeles council. "You can't just have people cycling through and going from shelter to shelter. The idea is to fix the problem."

Peggy Rivera, chairwoman of the Oxnard Commission on Homelessness, said: "Homelessness has really changed in the past 30 years. We see more families these days, more women than we used to, and we're working diligently to fix that. St. Vincent de Paul Society does such a wonderful job of operating a safe, clean environment. It's a safe haven for the night."

Al Jones with the Oxnard Commission on the Homeless said: "The commission is driven and focused on having this happen. It serves so many good purposes with so many people coming in. We need to make people aware of this issue and bring the public into the discussion. When we open a year-round shelter, it has to involve a lot of different groups. Let's not weight the scales of justice to any one side. It has to be funded and that has to be sustainable."

Feeling similarly was Shawn McCarthy, a Ventura-area businessman and member of the River Community Church in Ventura.

"Homelessness is a huge problem for the county," he said. "We don't often want to think about those who need help, but people need to step up. It's going to take a large effort."

Photo: Marc Melinkovich, shelter manager of the Society's West Ventura County emergency winter shelter, gives a tour of the facility.

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