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3 obstacles to helping Ventura’s homeless with mental illness

VENTURA, CA - NOVEMBER 8: Jack "J.D." Davis plays the blues on a harmonica, which he says was used in a recording session with guitarist Eric Clapton, at his squatters' camp along the Ventura River November 8, 2004 in Ventura, California. Ventura police are preparing to evict the residents of sprawling homeless encampments along the riverbed, which has been home to squatters since World War II. Winter rains have flooded the area in the past with deadly results. Officials are trying to hammer out an ambitious plan to provide the illegal squatters with housing, medical care and other services. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

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California's coastal communities have been faced with a growing homeless population. Ventura County is no exception.  

Last night, a Ventura City Council meeting was overcome with calls to provide more services for the mentally ill.

The outcry comes after Anthony Mele was fatally stabbed while having dinner with his family last week, at the beachside Ventura promenade. The man thought responsible has been identified as a local homeless man, whom authorities say struggled with mental illness. 

In 2018, Ventura's homeless population grew 13 percent, the first increase in years, while the number of homeless families and veterans fell. 

1. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution

Ventura's homeless population is far from homogenous so the path to shelter and stability can differ greatly. It's made up of low-income individuals struggling with rising housing rates, families with children, veterans, and those fleeing domestic violence. 

Roughly a quarter of the population is chronically homeless and struggles with mental illness and addiction. 

"Homelessness is multifaceted and the populations that are affected are just as diverse as the reasons they end up in that situation," said Tara Carruth, manager of the Ventura County Continuum of Care– a coalition dedicated to ending homelessness.

The killing of Anthony Mele was particularly shocking as most of the crimes committed by the homeless are non-violent. Conversely, Carruth said,"Homeless people are at a higher risk of being victimized on the streets." 

2. Gaps in the system

While the city and county of Ventura have a number of mental health services in place, it's really tough to get better while living on the street. 

"People who are really struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, it's hard for them to fully participate in their treatment, comply to their medications, when they don't have their own personal safety or place to be," said Carruth.  "We have very limited year-round shelter programs in Ventura and struggle with the high-cost, low-vacancy, rental market, to find people appropriate housing." 

3. Refusing treatment

If an individual doesn't want to accept mental health services, there's not a whole lot authorities can do. Even when law enforcement is familiar with a local individual, they cannot simply force mental health treatment on them. "The courts protect people's individual rights and their right to self-determine and make choices," said Carruth.

For extreme cases, some California counties, including Ventura, voted to participate in Laura's Law which allows the courts to legally compel individuals to accept treatment in special circumstances. The requirements to qualify for forced hospitalization are severe and Carruth said Laura's Law is not often successfully enacted in Ventura.