(Newbury Park, Ca) Conejo Valley residents congregated in Borchard Park Thursday evening to share stories and ask questions of local law enforcement and community organizations regarding the accumulation of panhandlers and homeless in Thousand Oaks.
Deanna Lowe, organizer of the gathering, started with having the 40+ attendees introduce themselves and then shared her own personal story. “I woke up to a guy peeing on my lawn and I didn’t want to approach him because I didn’t know what he would do,” shared Lowe.
Kevin McNamee, Thousand Oaks resident and candidate for Thousand Oaks City Council, shared his personal challenges with the homeless at his place of business and then explained, “This problem goes back 8 years ago when the laws in California were changed with AB 109 and SB47 and Prop 57 that all changed the way we could enforce laws and address crimes. People are being let out of jail prematurely and are back out on the street.”
Thousand Oaks Police Department officers participated in the discussion and shared information with the group, “In April, we did a local survey and have found 240 homeless people here. Only about 9% fall into the panhandler category,” shared Tim Hagel, Thousand Oaks Police Chief.
“I’m begging you- stop giving them money,” said Hagel
Hagel explained, “Some dad walking out of a store with a $4,000 TV with his kids sees a guy panhandling and feels guilty. So he gives $20 to the guy and his kids tell him that it was nice and it feels good. But I suggest you give to a local organization like LSS or Manna or an employment organization or a faith based organization and you get $20 of services. Because when you give that guy $20, he’s going to use it on vodka or gin.”
Hagel continued to explain the challenges for local law enforcement and local service organizations. “It is profitable to panhandle and the police can’t do anything. Every time you give them money and the homeless person gets $100-200 per day, that is money that doesn’t go to services but perhaps to drinking or worse. People give because they feel guilty that they should help. I suggest they should give to a local agency to help facilitate services.”
Denise Cortes of Lutheran Social Services (LSS) is one such local service organization. LSS is open 7 days week 365 days a year and includes the help of over 700 volunteers. They offer showers, a place to do laundry, case management, and provide lunches and meals. They are supported by many other local organizations including Rotary International and Amgen.
“We help with daily outreach,” shared Cortes.
Community members shared their frustrations. Moms of little kids expressed their fear to go to certain parks in the area because of the presence of homeless people that appear to be intoxicated or otherwise impaired on illicit drugs. “I won’t go to Gateway Park and it breaks my heart because it is right around the corner from my house,” shared one mother.
Questions were posed to Hagel and Conejo Recreation and Park District General Manager, Jim Friedl, about altering park benches so that the homeless cannot sleep on them.
Hagel replied, “We have to follow the Constitution and it applies to all citizens. According to our Constitution, people have the ‘right to rest.’ It is protected.”
Friedl addressed the question about benches with arms to prevent people sleeping. “New benches would need to be purchased to replace existing benches with the arm bars.” When asked if existing benches could simply be modified, he replied, “Probably not. Attachments would really need to be bomb proof so they couldn’t be taken apart.”
A representative from the Newbury Park branch of the Thousand Oaks library shared that they had changed out their bench to one with a bar after complaints from employees and incidents that were reported to local law enforcement. “It was very effective,” the man shared.
The group then prompted Friedl as to what it would take to make the same changes as the library, he replied, “Likely a petition or someone with a really great idea.”
Another mom expressed concern about a man she has seen at the park where her kids play that she has heard has a felony record. She understands that his background includes use of PCP. She asked if it was possible to get a “stay away order” for someone like that from areas where kids are, such as playgrounds, schools, and daycare.
Hagel explained to the group that a stay away order is often used by businesses to keep panhandlers away that are impacting their business and have no intention to do business at the location. He conveyed that he would do research to see if it could apply to public property and these sets of circumstances.
A person in the crowd asked if panhandlers were allowed to sit on crates. Hagel replied, “Yes. Thanks to the Girl Scouts (and we love The Girl Scouts), yes they are allowed to sit on crates.”
Hagel shared that the Thousand Oaks Police Department has created signs that cost $400 that discourage people from supporting panhandlers. “I give a lot of credit to Best Buy who let us put those signs in front of their doors without a lot of bureaucracy and it was very effective in solving the problem there.”
One women shared that she was waiting for the bus on Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Rancho Road with a man next to her who, as the bus was approaching, was digging through his pockets for coins. When it appeared he was short he looked to her and asked if she could spare 50 cents. She went to her purse to get the money for him and looked up to find 4 men surrounding her trying to get more money. “I was really scared! I didn’t know what to do. I just gave it to them.” She shared that the men were passing around alcohol to one another and the liquid spilled on her while they drank. According to her, it was in fact alcohol.
When asked what she should do and what was illegal and what was not, Hagel replied, “Public consumption of alcohol and drugs is not legal. It is against the law in Thousand Oaks and according to CRPD policy to publicly consume alcohol, unless you have a permit for a function like a wedding. It is not against the law to be impaired by alcohol in public. It is against the law to engage in disorderly conduct. It is also against the law to be so impaired that you can’t take care of yourself.”
Hagel continued, “647 (f) says that they may not be so intoxicated that they cannot take care of themselves. Our officers are experts in how to determine this. That is what we do. We ask a series of question. ‘Do you know where you are?’ ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘Where are you going?’ We know how to determine this.”
One local resident asked Hagel, “How can we help you, help us, with this problem?”
Hagel replied, “Just 6 miles away in LA County there are 58,000 people homeless and living in bushes. If you ask a professional in housing what the problem is, they will say its housing. If you ask a mental health professional how to solve the problem, they will say better mental health. If you ask someone in rehabilitation services how to help, they will say rehab. If you ask someone in law enforcement, they will say laws, etc. The right answer is that it is all of these. Which one do you give them first? Some want homes and some don’t. We can help them find homes. The Doctor (referring to McNamee) is right. This started in many ways because of the laws. We have to change the laws and it will take a lot of money to do that.”
Dylan Hernandez arrived with her husband to share her extreme frustration, “I have people parked on my street on Chiquita Lane living out of their cars. They sleep there at night. They leave empty alcohol bottles, drug needles, and sometimes bottles with I don’t know what in it. They leave soiled toilet paper. It’s disgusting. They have expired tags and they are there constantly. What can be done? Can they be towed?”
Hagel replied, “It is not illegal to sleep out of your car. But they cannot stay in one spot for more than 3 days. They have to move at least 1 mile every 72 hours otherwise they can be towed.”
When asked about aggressive panhandling, Hagel shared, “aggressive panhandling is a subjective standard. It usually is considered aggressive when they obstruct your movement such as standing in front of your car or not letting you enter a door to a place of business. It’s a very high standard.”
“Even certain stores in a retail mall have a difficult time because they have to coordinate with the property owner for things to happen and sometimes the left hand doesn’t agree with the right hand. A company like Costco that owns the business and the land has made it very easy for us to enforce our laws because they are the single decision maker. That is why you don’t see problems at Costco,” conveyed Hagel.
“72% of the population is not in your face. They are living in bushes and sending their kids to school and you wouldn’t know it. We know it because that is our job. From December to April our local service and faith based organizations offer shelter and try to take care of these people but they don’t have the resources to go year round and they need help.”
After the group concluded, The Voice La Voz spoke to Thousand Oaks Vulnerable Population Officer, Juan Cordova, who was in attendance. His area of focus is Thousand Oaks panhandlers and the homeless. When asked about successes he has seen in his work, he shared, “LSS houses about 39 people.”
When asked about a specific story, he shared, “We had one woman on a street corner who was picked up and charged for a felony and was being charged by the DA’s office. We worked with her and she ultimately went to rehab and is back with her family now. The whole process took a few months.”
McNamee shared his conclusion. “The meeting pointed out that policy makers in Sacramento and Washington, who created the homeless problem, hold the long term solutions. What we can do locally is encourage residents to not give money directly to the homeless but give to the many faith based and homeless services organizations. This ensures the money is put to needed homeless services and not encourage drugs and alcohol use”
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