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Ventura Police Put Away Handcuffs, And Offer Help Like Rides To Rehab For Homeless

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KCLU News
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Ventura Police are hoping to help tackle part of the city's homlessness problem by offering up support like trips to rehab, and connections with social services. Pictured here, a homeless camp on the outskirts of Ventura.

Program focuses on getting people help in an effort to break the cycle of jail time for minor offenses.

Ventura Police Sergeant Mike Anselmo is hitting the streets on a very unique type of patrol. He’s looking for homeless in the city. But, he’s not out to arrest them. His Patrol Task Force tries to get them the support they need to get off the streets, with housing and social services.

He drives just a few blocks, to Plaza Park, when Anselmo spots a woman who’s a regular on the city’s streets. "You want to go to the shelter?" asked Anselmo. "No," answered the woman.

The woman is in her 30s. She said she’s lived on the city’s street for about four years. Anselmo has worked repeatedly to get her help.

"I'll still want to drink," said the woman. "How much do you drink a day?" asked the officer. "Two-pints to a fifth of vodka," answered the woman. Anselmo says the woman's parents in Oregon have agreed to take her in if she stops drinking, but she says she's not ready for it.

Many of the long-time homeless on Ventura’s streets have suffered some type of trauma, leading to substance abuse and mental health issues. Anselmo says the problem isn’t a lack of resources to help them. The issue is they don’t want it.

"It's made them seek a different lifestyle. That lifestyle could be self-medication using drugs or alcohol, and they end up on the streets." said Anselmo. He says as a result, many are resistant to social services, and that's the challenge his unit faces, which is convincing the chronically homeless to accept help.

The Ventura Police sergeant says arrests are not the answer to the problem. He says you can't arrest your way out of homelessness.

Anselmo says they work with a wide range of public and non-profit agencies to get the homeless into supportive programs, instead of jail cells. Members of his patrol team do video conferences with judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to get homeless accused of minor offenses into things like diversion programs.

There are limitations on the amount of resources available, like transitional housing. Still, it starts with someone wanting, and being willing to accept help.

Anselmo drives to Ventura’s Pierpont Beach. He’s looking for another one of his homeless regulars. Even though its 9 a.m. in the morning, James Damon wasn't at his regular spot on the sand. It turned out he was busy buying a beer. He said he’s comfortable being on the streets.

Damon has been one of the police sergeant’s tougher cases. At one point, after the 44-year-old man actually had gone to rehab, Anselmo had him over to his home for a barbecue. The sergeant said he wanted to show him encouragement.

The rehab didn’t stick. "When I first got into the rehab, I lasted about a month," said Damon. "Honestly, the whole time I was in there, I just...I was like...as soon as I get out of here, I'm going to have a beer. I just like to drink."

But, there are success stories. They got Richard Windor and his girlfriend off the streets. He has a job, and the couple now has a little girl.

"I got help from the PD, I got help from the Salvation Army, I got help from the River Community Church, I got help from a lot of people" said Windor. He says there's always help available. "You have to want it. You have to be willing to change," said Windor.

For Anselmo it’s stories like that which keep him, and the Patrol Task Force going.

But members of the unit know it’s a never ending struggle, and say it only works when someone is willing to accept help, and to make change in their life. They say getting people off the streets as not as simple, or as straightforward as most people think.

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