Photo by Guy W. Kitchens
It’s a few hours before dusk at River Haven and the camp is quiet, so quiet it’s hard to tell if there are actually people snuggled inside the square canvas tents. Cool wind from the Pacific drifts east, making the fine dust of the camp’s lone dirt road dance in the fading light. A dog sprawls idly near a tent, watching as a few residents stroll home for the night.
This could be a campground where vacationers find low-rent lodgings near the sea, a place from which such vacationers would be readying to return home as the weather grows chilly and warm hearths call travelers home. But River Haven is home to the 25 or so people who live here, the homeless who aren’t homeless anymore. These people won’t be breaking camp to return to a comfortable suburb. They’ve found safety and community — and a place where they won’t be driven out by camp rangers and cops.
“When was the last time you asked your neighbor for a cup of sugar?” asks James Fields, chairman of River Haven’s community council, bluer-than-blue eyes flickering in amusement. “We look out for each other here. It’s like a big family — a big dysfunctional family.” Fields is describing the supportive nature of his community, which is sponsored by the Turning Point Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the recovery of persons disabled due to mental illness.
Though there are a few mentally ill River Haven residents, the camp was designed to be a self-governing community, and started as an alternative for former Ventura river-bottom residents who’d prefer not to find other outdoor spots or abide by the strict rules of temporary shelters.
“It’s a good place,” says Fields, who shares his space with a 6-year-old iguana named Dog. “It gets a lot of the people off the streets, gives them a place they can call home — a place where people can’t just come in and steal their things, a place where Cal-Trans can’t come in and take their things when they try to go find a meal.”
Providing safe havens is what Turning Point does best. Founded in 1988, the organization provides some form of aid to about 500 clients a year. “The first thing people probably don’t know about Turning Point is that our mission is to provide shelter, housing and rehabilitation services for persons in our community who are mentally ill,” says Clyde Reynolds, executive director of Turning Point, from his office on Main Street in Ventura.
Downstairs, a few clients are talking and listening to a country music station. This location, the New Visions Clubhouse, is one of two Turning Point clubhouses, drop-in centers that provide recreational activities, community living skills groups, recovery groups and workshops and vocational services — including assessment, work training and paid work experience.
“As many as 50 percent of the people on the street experience symptoms of mental illness, ranging from mild depression to severe mental illness.” Between 25 and 35 percent of those who are mentally ill have a diagnosable mental illness, Reynolds adds.
The main thrust of the foundation, as well as its Wellness and Recovery Action Planning, or WRAP, program, is to help the mentally ill — whether they’re homeless, live in a shelter, a group home or even with family — lead productive and fulfilling lives.
“For us in mental health, we’re talking about people being able to recover, and not necessarily entirely if they have a serious mental illness,” says Reynolds, who adds that, by recovery, he means from both mental illness and substance abuse, though not all of Turning Point’s mentally ill clientele have substance abuse problems. Some mentally ill people do abuse substances as a form of self-medication, though there are barrages of reasons why the mentally ill and so many others turn to drugs.
“A lot of what we do here is open people up to the possibilities,” Reynolds says. “One of the first questions we ask is, ‘What would you like to do?’ ” As Turning Point staff asks clients about their aspirations, potential hobbies, educational goals and social lives, the big picture begins to emerge. “As we do that, a picture emerges as a list of things they’d like to change.”
For the mentally ill, it can be difficult to hold a job, sustain friendships and participate in the community, which ultimately causes them to feel isolated and deficient as human beings. Self worth plummets, depression often runs rampant, and so many are left wondering if anything at all can be done. Without income, or with very little income, and an inability to manage their affairs, many of the mentally ill — even those with families — become homeless.
“We help them see the positives,” Reynolds says. “For a while, we are the ones communicating what we see as positives for them … You find out that what they want are the same things we all want. We’re able to focus on the kinds of groups and activities that help people achieve their highest potential.” Turning Point’s clients are referred to the foundation by the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department.
Our Place Shelter, in downtown Ventura, is a 10-bed shelter and drop-in center that’s been in operation since 1995. The tiny program serves over 300 mentally-ill clients each year, though only about 60 people a year are able to use the shelter’s beds — which are always full. “The rest of the individuals may come in to get their mail, do their laundry, talk to a counselor or take a shower,” Reynolds says. An additional 10 rooms above the Our Place shelter, called Stephenson Place — named in honor of a man named Michael Stephenson who was once a counselor for and consumer of Turning Point’s services —were acquired by Turning Point as permanent Section-8 housing, which means inhabitants pay about 30 percent of the rent.
Turning Point offers additional countywide supported housing via Appleton House, a six-bed transitional shared-living home in Simi Valley, and the Wooley House in Oxnard, which offers seven permanent units and eight transitional units. Additionally, the foundation manages Monarch Meadows, a rehabilitation garden on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, as well as a newspaper recycling program. The idea, Reynolds says, is to offer an array of choices and opportunities to clients.
Reynolds, who earned a master’s degree in theology and became an ordained minister, began working with the mentally ill after he found that his work with the church didn’t bring about as much change as he’d hoped. “I thought the church was about social change and social issues and getting involved,” he says. A native of Clovis, CA, Reynolds eventually left his work with the church in Las Vegas and moved to Southern California, where he started his first program for the mentally ill at the Roger Williams True Love Baptist Church. “It was a good way to integrate my experience in the church into working with the mentally ill,” Reynolds says.
Work eventually brought Reynolds to Ventura and to the establishment of the Turning Point Foundation, which is always in need of support from the community.
“People can help in a lot of ways,” says Reynolds. “There are things that businesses need that, as a nonprofit, we can’t pay for. It’s not always money that people can give, but all kinds of professional services.” Of the foundation’s $1.7 million annual operating budget, the nonprofit must raise about $160,000 a year. Much of the remaining funding is secured through grants.
“There are so many things people can do that they probably haven’t even thought of,” Reynolds says. Downstairs, a few clients are still laughing and talking. One man sits with eyes closed on a couch. “All they have to do is ask.”