Homelessness is an ongoing challenge for the residents and local agencies in the Conejo Valley, particularly the City of Thousand Oaks. The mainstream media often shares stories about large homeless encampments in major cities; however, not many communities, large or small, are immune from this issue. Neither is the Conejo Recreation and Park District (CRPD).
The City of Thousand Oaks has been taking the lead in bringing local agencies and organizations together to provide leadership and find strategies for both the homeless and those trying to assist them. CRPD is an active participant in this effort. Parks, public spaces, sidewalks and parking lots are common gathering places for the homeless. Easy access to food, shelter and other needed facilities are often key to the more frequented locations.
Recently, CalTrans made an effort to clean up the homeless encampment along the SR23 Freeway between Janss Road and Paige Lane. The convenience of nearby stores, restaurants and community services made it a favored location to establish living spaces. Having visited that site in the past with CRPD staff, I observed a wide variety of individuals and situations. Some “residents” appeared to be in need of professional assistance, while others actually had jobs and were just trying to get back on their feet.
When spending the night volunteering at a local church that housed the homeless, I was keenly aware of the same range of situations. What I remember the most was seeing a mom and dad helping their young children with homework after dinner. In the morning, they expressed sincere gratitude for the simple breakfast and bag lunch that was shared with them. The family then squeezed into their car with the rest of their belongings to drop the children off at school. Both of these experiences were humbling and quite educational – homelessness is not always selective, nor is it always long-term.
The CalTrans encampment is free of homeless individuals for now, and these folks have likely found other sites around town to call “home.” CRPD staff have noticed an increase in homeless individuals frequenting certain park sites, and rangers have found others starting to establish camps in public open space areas. Our parks are open to all residents from all walks of life, and most park use is unrestrained and open to the imagination. However, not all activities are allowable, and there are some instances where uses have been deemed unacceptable.
I have been asked many times, “What is CRPD doing to curtail the homeless population that is frequenting the parks?” Foremost, CRPD actively works with local agencies and organizations, along with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, to address the homeless issue while trying to respond to each specific situation that arises. In addition, CRPD staff constantly monitor the daily activities in parks to ensure park users are safe and not endangering others.
While the use of parks and facilities by homeless folks is not an offense, unauthorized camping in parks and open spaces is not permitted by ordinance (including the use of trailers, campers or motor homes). Other CRPD ordinances prohibit the storage of personal property or camp paraphernalia on district lands. All parks and open spaces are closed for public use after 10 p.m. (some parks even earlier). CRPD ordinances are applicable to all park users. (The full CRPD Ordinance Manual is accessible at crpd.org.)
CRPD takes pride in serving the community’s recreational needs, but the district is also active in serving the community’s many social needs as well. Other assistance includes free lunches for seniors, homework assistance for youth through Safe Passage, therapeutic programming, the senior volunteer program, and community shelters during emergencies. Cooperating with the City of Thousand Oaks on homelessness is just one way of serving the community.
The challenges of homelessness are many, varied and dynamic, including their impact on parks and open space. CRPD is committed to serving all district residents regardless of their needs, and it is always a priority to keep parks open, safe and welcoming for all users.
Doug Nickles is a director/board member for the Conejo Recreation and Park District, the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency and the California Association of Recreation and Park Districts. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the district, agency or the respective boards.