As a regular observer of our Ventura City Council meetings, I do not recall a night quite like Monday night. Raw emotion and fear took over this room filled with people whose numbers spilled out the door, down the hall and into an overflow area.
We have been through a lot in these past months since the fire, but the death of a young father enjoying a night out with his family on the Promenade a week ago has lit a fuse. A homeless man who authorities observed by remote camera a few hours before and deemed not a threat at that time has been charged with his murder. In a random incident, Anthony Mele was stabbed in the neck while holding his five-year-old daughter. He died the next day.
The sheer horror of that attack haunts us, especially those of us who have had our own bad experiences with vagrants. The stories were recalled in emotional testimony to the council.
Most of these disturbances are nothing new to Dave Armstrong, president of the Downtown Ventura Partners (DVP). “We live with this day in and day out,” he said. “Vagrants chasing away business, that’s our No. 1 issue.”
Heidi Golff, who sells real estate on the Promenade, has seen it all, too. “Most of the time the vagrant criminals are preying on each other and fighting with each other,” she said. “Most disturbances that I saw were between themselves.”
Homelessness vs. vagrancy
It’s important to distinguish between the homeless and criminal vagrants. And those whose mental illnesses have so completely overtaken their lives that they can no longer function but are not receiving the care they need. Others have drug and alcohol problems.
The DVP has been active in getting people to stop disruptive behavior and find the help they need. Their Ambassadors program has trained personnel to interact with those who live on the streets. They work on the Promenade, and in Plaza and Mission parks and may soon include the new Kellogg Park. “We keep really detailed information on the regulars,” Armstrong explained. “Their job is to know everybody, document everything, steer them toward services, intervene when they can and call when they need help.”
But the man who allegedly stabbed Mele was not on their radar.
The DVP also funds a reconnection program which has led to 145 people being reunited with their families elsewhere. Armstrong recalls a man who lived under the pier for 20 years. He was recently sent home to Pennsylvania.
The Ventura Police Department’s Patrol Task Force, part of the city’s Safe and Clean Initiative, has expanded from key areas downtown and in Pierpont to citywide and works with social services. Chronic violators are assigned to Community Intervention Court and referred to a variety of places for help.
Interim City Manager Dan Paranick and the Council acknowledged these efforts and more, including our regular beat cops, have not been enough. Armstrong said he would like more help from the county with behavioral issues.
In order to beef up coverage, the Patrol Task Force will be working 20 hours a day, Paranick said. Remote cameras will be monitored around the clock seven days a week. Park ambassadors and Safe and Clean personnel will spend more time on the Promenade. The Fire Department has also been directed to the area.
As I left the meeting, I realized I needed to walk alone at night back to the Promenade where I had left my car. I, too, have been accosted by vagrants downtown and near the pier.
We need to feel safe again, and that includes those out on the streets. But patching together a solution is a tall order in a state where prisons often serve as de facto mental health facilities.
Every problem has its tipping point. We’ve found ours.