Marina Porter recounts the day she sat with her young son in east Ventura’s Community Park tearfully watching a happy parade of young mothers and their children walking by.

Struggling from an oppressive chain of events that had left her homeless, she pondered her own situation. “This isn’t me,” she thought. “It’s so awful and embarrassing and humiliating at the same time.”

Porter, who now resides in Ventura’s District 5, is a college graduate and had spent 15 years in an interior architectural design career that had her working in Beverly Hills and Downtown Los Angeles on multimillion-dollar residences and hotel projects. But she and her husband both lost their jobs following the birth of her son, and her car was sidelined with an expensive repair. State assistance had been problematic and her job hunting efforts had come up with nothing except work that paid by commission only.

When her unemployment insurance payments finally kicked in she used them to pay for child care.

Porter’s dilemma is not all that unusual, said Mary Kerrigan, the program director at Step Up Ventura, which works with young families to stem the root causes of homelessness. “The fact is that there are many, many families that are one paycheck away from homelessness.”

In our many conversations about Ventura’s homelessness issues, very little has been mentioned about the toll it takes on families. It is a cycle that repeats itself through the generations. The majority of children going into kindergarten who are homeless end up being homeless some time during their adult lives, Kerrigan said.

A vicious cycle
Lack of childcare also contributes to the vicious cycle. “If you don’t have child care, you can’t get a job. If don’t have a job, you can’t pay for child care,” Kerrigan said.

Porter points out that the prevailing wages in Ventura County don’t match well with the very high cost of housing. It doesn’t take very much to make it all come tumbling down. “I never thought I would be in this circumstance, ever,” she said.

Understanding this precarious situation only too well, local leaders like Kerrigan and social worker Judy Alexandre formed Step Up Ventura in 2014 to break the cycle. The nonprofit organization is aimed squarely at children in the 0-5 age range and their parents. The program currently pays for childcare and preschool for homeless children at Happy Ventures on E. Santa Clara St., having recently moved from the Magic Carousel in east Ventura. They also do parent coaching, and provide educational toys and materials.

The organization is filling in the gaps for other programs like Head Start preschools which currently have a huge waiting list locally. Homeless children don’t get priority. “We had a 4-year-old who had been on the list for two years. By the time we took him in, he was significantly behind,” Kerrigan said.

Many families live in crowded situations with friends and relatives, in motels, shelters or their cars. It’s traumatic for children in their early formative years. Their developmental process lags behind their peers.

Porter and her husband took that path as well. She is especially critical of the system which she says discourages families from being together. “All of the available shelters would not take husbands,” she said. And some are not well equipped for mothers with infants. She tried receiving vouchers for low-cost motels, but while there dodged drug addicts and prostitutes.

Porter and her family eventually pulled it all together and now live in a rented duplex. She is working three jobs and is co-chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals group. Still, she said, 58 percent of their income goes to rent.

Step Up Ventura has been a savior to many families and Porter is now doing marketing for them. She’s passionate about keeping others away from homelessness and works with families to find them resources, anything to keep them out of the position she was in.

She tells her story often in the hopes it will help. “We need to see each other for the human beings that we are,” Porter said.