Staking out new lives |

Staking out new lives

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

VENTURA, Calif. – Leonard Biga came out west from Maryland, hoping to find a steady job. When he didn’t, he took to sleeping in his truck, then on the streets.Last winter, the 53-year-old carny was squatting with other homeless people under a two-lane bridge on the dry bed of the Ventura River when police, fearful of winter flooding, forced them out.Biga was tired – tired of being dirty, tired of getting pushed around. His life seemed at a low point. Then something unexpected happened.At community forums on the relocation, as they shouted at city officials for pushing them out, he and other riverbed regulars began talking to one another. Soon they were demanding that they be given a place to stay where they could control their own destinies.Now Biga lives in a tent city called River Haven on city land near the banks of the slow-moving Santa Clara River.He has a laminated ID card saying he belongs. He is an elected leader of the community, presiding over weekly meetings at which residents voice their concerns and vote on camp business.Over the last seven months, he and about 20 other former drifters, including a grandmother and a pair of junior college students, have fashioned this self-governing community, complete with rent and regulations.”I want to go back to being a real human being in society,” Biga said. “I want to be recognized like a regular person again.”As cities across the United States grapple with a rising tide of homelessness, city leaders in Ventura have embraced this housing experiment. They have offered up land for River Haven, and this month they voted to extend that offer for a year.The camp is a result of a partnership among the city, a local nonprofit and the homeless themselves, and reflects a nationwide trend to formalize such makeshift encampments in response to a dearth of housing options.Tent cities have been established for the homeless in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. Similar communities have been proposed in Denver, Berkeley, Calif., and Tacoma, Wash.”We expect more to pop up,” said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless. “We support outdoor campgrounds. It’s not the same thing as advocating for and getting housing for the poor, but it’s a good alternative for the unsheltered homeless.”At River Haven, each resident pays $200 a month in rent to the campground. All must pitch in with chores, from lugging water to chopping firewood. Drugs and alcohol are banned. The rules have been typed up, and an elected camp council enforces them.On a Monday night, residents gathered for one of their regular meetings, on picnic benches near an open fire, just starting to burn hot against a cold, stiff wind.A row of worn tents fanned out behind them, forming the nucleus of their nylon neighborhood, where camp stoves and barbecue grills serve as a community kitchen. Blue tarp covered each campsite, rattling like thunder when the wind blew.Each rattle was a reminder of the precarious nature of this makeshift place. But for people who have long been untethered, it’s remarkable how quickly they have become like any other homeowners group.They complained this night about people parking illegally and about yapping dogs disturbing the peace. They debated the fate of a couple whose nonstop sparring repeatedly shattered the neighborhood calm.Council Secretary Vaquette Coulter said she was fed up with the off-road enthusiasts tearing around the dirt trails that crisscross the waterfront property.”I thought one of these guys was going to come right through my place the other day,” she said.It wasn’t easy getting this far. After being forced from the river bottom in December 2004, the group moved more than 30 times, relocating threadbare tents and tattered belongings from campground to campground, one step ahead of rules limiting the length of stay.They came to be known as the “Dirty Thirty.” And they were nearly out of options when the city stepped forward in September and lent them this spit of land historically used to dump silt dredged from a nearby harbor. In its current incarnation, some might argue it is a dumping ground still.But that’s not the way Biga and his neighbors see it. In this primitive place, where lanterns provide light and outhouses provide plumbing, they are building a community on their own terms.”We’ve come a long way, but we’re still on the low rung of the ladder,” Biga said. “But at least it’s a step in the right direction.”No fighting. No littering. No loud music. Respect one another. Attend at least one community meeting a week. Make a positive contribution. These are some of the rules posted on a bulletin board and distributed to every applicant seeking a spot.The rules were the first thing River Haven founders hashed out. Some were borrowed from campgrounds where they had stayed. Others logically derived from the new lives they were trying to lead. In their earliest test of democracy, they debated every rule and put them to a vote.”We were tired of getting our stuff stolen, so that became our first rule. If you steal, you’re gone,” said Andrew Schreier, 32, a River Haven founder. “We wanted a safe place, that was our No. 1 concern.”Nearly 60 people have belonged to the tent city since it started, although not all at one time. The campground has a self-imposed capacity of 25.Some have used their stay as a springboard to permanent housing. Others want to continue a life outdoors, rejecting the notion that running water and flushing toilets are necessary to live the American dream.”I’ll live here as long as they let me, then I’ll find another way to camp,” said Debra Dutton, 50, a grandmother of 14 who has been homeless on and off for eight years.”I’ve raised my babies, now I’m doing what Mom wants to do,” she said, pulling her long blond hair into a thick ponytail. “I love it out here. You are so close to God.”Warm, with kind blue eyes, she is the den mother of the group. She reminds people to take their medications and hands out cigarettes to anyone who has run out. She is quick to wrap her generous arms around anyone having a tough day.Still, there are days when her own demons take over, and lately she’s been having trouble getting out of bed.Perched in the doorway of a red-and-silver tent, firing up a cigarette, Dutton said she has a mild anxiety disorder, and suffers from chronic headaches and muscle pain. She pops tranquilizers to keep night terrors at bay.She said she began living outdoors to escape an abusive marriage. It was only then, with no walls and no roof, that she found peace.Her children now tell her she has never seemed happier. Her grandchildren visit on weekends and take nature walks along the river trails. And she spends her time the best way she knows, looking out for others by day and sleeping under the stars by night.”I feel more at home in my little tent, in my little world, than I’ve ever felt anyplace else,” said Dutton, who collects disability and, when money is tight, holds up a sign outside a McDonalds asking for spare change.”I fit in here,” she said.Ventura City Manager Rick Cole knows some residents might object to having a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in their midst. But he said that with housing in short supply, he and others felt a need to do what they could to address a growing problem.That’s why last fall, as River Haven was bouncing from place to place and threatening to fold under the weight of its own instability, the city offered the group a chance to put down roots. And it’s why the city last month decided to keep the camp open another year, acknowledging the need for such nontraditional approaches.”This is such a tough challenge that when you have success, it’s important to keep it going,” Cole said. “I think for anyone who wonders why we’re doing what we are doing, if they paid a visit to River Haven, they would understand.”It takes work to find this place. It is accessible only by dirt trails, and tall brush hides the camp from the road.Still, people hear about River Haven and show up, wanting to help. Visitors delivered turkeys and sleeping bags for the holidays. One tent serves as a community pantry overflowing with donated beans, cans of tomato paste and tubs of Quaker oats. A group of business owners and church members called Friends of River Haven regularly come by to lend a hand and meet monthly to plot strategy for the settlement’s long-term survival.The biggest hand has come from the Turning Point Foundation, which serves as River Haven’s sponsor.Social workers for the Ventura nonprofit oversee the group’s weekly meetings and manage its money. They have helped River Haven win financial support.A grant from Catholic Charities pays the group $640 a month for beach cleanup – which benefits the city. Another from the Santa Barbara-based McCune Foundation provided $30,000 for first-year operating expenses, which include the cost of the camp’s propane and official cellphone.At this month’s Ventura Planning Commission meeting – at which a uniformed police officer, leather-clad bikers and half a dozen River Haven residents turned out to speak to the power of the place – Turning Point Executive Director Clyde Reynolds talked about those who have gained employment and permanent housing through their tent-city stay.”That’s why it’s important for them to have a place they can count on,” he told commissioners, before they unanimously voted to support the project. “A place they can call home.”

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