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Unitarian Church sponsors Hidden Ventura
updated: Sep 20, 2010, 1:43 PM

By Tim Pompey

On a recent Saturday last August, a group of people boarded a bus to see some sights in Ventura. The Pier? The Harbor? No, this particular trip invited people to talk with members of Ventura's homeless population. The excursion, called Hidden Ventura, is funded by the McCune Foundation and the Unitarian Universalist Fund for Social Responsibility. It is coordinated locally through Lift Up Your Voice (www.liftupyourvoice.org), a grassroots project of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura.

You may wonder why a group would set out to deliberately meet with the homeless. Most folks would rather avoid the issue, and therein lies the heart of the matter. After introducing herself on the bus, Reverend Jan Christian from the Unitarian Universalist Church announced that much of what we believe about homelessness is a myth. For Christian, then, these outings serve as a public myth buster, providing those who are not homeless with a chance to talk to those who are.

Beth Sutherland, Coordinator for LUYV, thinks this is her organization's core purpose: "We invite folks who have experienced homelessness to speak to folks who haven't. If it breaks stereotypes, we've done our job."

Hidden Ventura transported this particular group to two sites: River Haven Transitional Living Center (near the Santa Clara River) and SHORE (part of the WAV Project, located on Thompson Boulevard and Garden Street).

River Haven was formed six years ago in response to the City's urgent need to clear the Ventura river bottom of homeless residents. The City was concerned that predicted heavy rains would threaten the safety of camp dwellers.

In response to this dilemma, The Turning Point Foundation took on the task of relocating and providing services to a group of campers who had banded together for support. Over the course of several years, the group moved dozens of times and finally settled on a piece of City property just south of the intersection at Olivas Drive and Harbor Boulevard.

Last September, Turning Point, with assistance from World Shelters and the Seabees, coordinated a massive camp overhaul. Today River Haven can house up to twenty-five residents in clean polypropylene domes and provide them with important social services aimed at getting camp residents back on their feet. Jeff Schettler, River Haven's Residential Site Manager, explained to the group how he once worked for K-mart and Target before getting laid off and discovering he was homeless. Shuffling from campsite to campsite, Schettler eventually learned about River Haven and applied to be a resident. He now has several part-time jobs, including his work at the camp.

SHORE (Supportive Housing Opportunities in a Residential Environment) opened last November and contains fifteen units of permanent supportive housing where families and individuals can find the support they need to make the full transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Donald Sommerfield, a SHORE resident, described his own encounter with homelessness, which included living for a period of time in both a tent and a car. Being homeless for a year, Sommerfield survived through determination and the support of family and friends. When SHORE opened, he applied and now lives in one of their apartment units. Sommerfield, a freelance writer, recently wrote a series of articles for the Ventura County Star about homelessness. In one of these articles, Sommerfield describes how homelessness can be emotionally devastating: "When you had a job and a place to call your own, life was better. But lose one or both and suddenly you're backpedaling, flinching, wondering why the majority of people have turned away from you. That sounds simplistic, but it is often a bitter truth."

Reverend Christian thinks that Lift Up Your Voice is most crucial as an advocate for the homeless. For her, the most challenging part of solving the homeless problem is twofold: listening and collaborating. She describes Hidden Ventura and LUYV as an attempt to "change the city culture from why we can't to how we can. It's not us versus them, but all of us in this together." Hidden Ventura reflects Christian's optimism about human communication. She thinks the challenge of homelessness speaks to other possibilities, not only for solving homelessness, but learning to become a better community.

For now, however, Hidden Ventura is one small step toward opening up dialogue between those who have housing and those who don't. Its basic purpose is reflected in a song by Pink Floyd using a famous quote from physicist Stephen Hawking: "All we need to do is keep talking."

Jeff Schettler, Residential Site Manager for the River Haven Transitional Living Center, explains the history and purpose of the camp to a group of visitors during the Hidden Ventura Tour.

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