For 3 many years, Jamie Nelson has thought of Ojai her private paradise. It’s the place she raised her youngsters and cherishes the springtime, when the air smells like jasmine and orange blossoms.

“A number of occasions, I’ve mentioned, ‘God, I feel Heaven in all probability smells like this,’” Nelson mentioned of this artsy vacationer city of seven,500 folks.

Now, Nelson, a 74-year-old grandmother who has coronary heart issues and dangerous knees and leans closely on a cane, is homeless. She lives in a tent outdoors the historic Ojai Metropolis Corridor, the place a rising encampment crammed with older folks has vexed a neighborhood recognized for religious retreats, chakra-aligning crystals and natural farms.

“I used to be scared to loss of life of coming right here,” mentioned Nelson, who moved to Metropolis Corridor in November. “I used to be so afraid, as a result of I’m older. And I bought right here and the individuals are simply — they’re very valuable. They’re superb and really clever, and simply had issues occur.”

Thirty folks reside on the wooded eight-acre campus. Half are older than 55, and eight are older than 65. And — regardless of some locals’ assertions that they’re refugees from larger cities like Ventura and Santa Barbara — most are longtime Ojai residents, mentioned Rick Raine, the town’s new homeless providers coordinator.

“They are saying, ‘You’re bringing in folks!’ No, folks have all the time been right here,” mentioned Raine, who was Nelson’s neighbor years in the past.

Rick Raine, Ojai’s homeless providers coordinator, created a neighborhood room on the Metropolis Corridor encampment the place residents can discover recent espresso and dialog.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

The inexpensive housing scarcity is nothing new in Ojai, however the concern acquired elevated consideration final yr after a septuagenarian member of the Metropolis Council was priced out of her rented home, declared herself homeless and was investigated by a grand jury for now not residing inside her council district.

On this 4.4-square-mile metropolis, homelessness was once extra unfold out, with folks sleeping of their vehicles or bundled in blankets within the open-air buying arcade. Now, the disaster is more durable to disregard as a result of it’s concentrated on the Metropolis Corridor encampment, which has turn into a flashpoint as the town pours cash and sources into making the setup extra livable.

Native politicians and regulation enforcement officers say they can’t transfer the encampment due to choices by the U.S. ninth Circuit Court docket of Appeals. Ojai has no devoted homeless shelter, and — in circumstances from Boise, Idaho, and Grants Go, Ore. — the court docket decided it was unconstitutional merciless and weird punishment for cities to criminalize tenting in public areas when there will not be sufficient shelter beds.

The U.S. Supreme Court docket agreed last month to assessment the decrease court docket’s choice within the Oregon case and to resolve whether or not cities can implement tenting bans. A ruling is anticipated this summer season.

A woman mows grass at a homeless encampment in Ojai.

Melissa Balding is among the many homeless residents at Ojai’s Metropolis Corridor encampment who’re making an attempt to maintain the property tidy.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

For now, the decrease court docket rulings “actually bind us with what we are able to do,” Ojai Police Chief Trina Newman mentioned. Officers, she mentioned, have responded to stories of theft, loud music, consuming and homeless folks trespassing on neighbors’ property.

“We have now people which have their share of difficulties: Habit. Psychological well being issues. Whenever you get a certain quantity of individuals in a small space, there’s going to be issues,” she mentioned.

“However our fingers are tied.”

A man's image is reflected in a mirror at a homeless encampment.

William Holden has inspired homeless folks in Ojai to shelter on the Metropolis Corridor encampment. “It’s not a brand new downside,” he says of homelessness. “It’s simply been moved to the place you’ll be able to see it.”

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

Ojai’s Metropolis Corridor is an architectural gem and level of native pleasure. Initially a family home, later gifted to the town, it was in-built 1907 as a Craftsman-style home and later reworked to slot in with the Mission Revival structure that Ojai turned recognized for.

At this time, scores of tents unfold out simply past the constructing’s stately arches and huge patios. Lots of the campers attempt to maintain the property tidy, selecting up trash and reducing the grass with a handbook push mower. Some maintain tchotchkes — small statues, fake flowers — outdoors their tents to make the place really feel extra homey.

Over the past yr, the variety of folks residing on the encampment exploded, from about 5 folks to 30.

At a Metropolis Council assembly in September, William Holden, a resident of Ojai for 23 years, pushed his aged chihuahua, Fievel Mouskawitz, in a pink stroller as much as the microphone.

“I did this,” Holden, 61, mentioned of the encampment, the place he now lives.

“I invited these individuals who had been sleeping of their vehicles, these those that had been beneath the bridge, to come back again right here, as a result of I’ve heard the police don’t make us transfer like they do while you’re in an unregistered motorcar or sleeping the place you’re not presupposed to be sleeping.”

“It’s not a brand new downside,” he added. “It’s simply been moved to the place you’ll be able to see it.”

Metropolis officers confirmed that phrase of mouth helped develop the camp, which sits on environmentally delicate oak woodland grounds that slope right down to a creek. The bottom is delicate, muddy and, in some parts, prone to a landslide if it will get too saturated, Raine mentioned.

This fall, the Metropolis Council allotted $200,000 to cope with the disaster, and Raine was employed to be the town’s first homeless providers coordinator. He opened a break room on the encampment the place he brews a recent pot of Folgers espresso each morning. He retains blankets, coats, boots and additional meals available — for the folks and their pets.

The town added transportable bathrooms, and, in late January, Raine and a slew of volunteers constructed eight sturdy wilderness tents within the parking zone, off the muddy floor. Raine mentioned he selected eight of the older, extra weak campers — together with Nelson — for the 8-by-10-foot tents, every of which sits on a fire-treated platform and features a storage shed.

4 extra tents will go up within the coming weeks.

A man surveys a grassy homeless camp with mountains in the distance.

Homeless providers coordinator Rick Raine is working with volunteers to erect wilderness tents to shelter probably the most weak campers in Ojai’s sanctioned homeless camp.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

Total, the city has been supportive of the town’s efforts, mentioned Mayor Betsy Stix. “We’re a loving, caring neighborhood, and I feel that — it’s so private,” she mentioned, including that some municipal staff have a highschool classmate residing on the camp.

Final month, the city applied for $12.4 million in state grant funding to construct tiny properties and supply case administration and safety. Metropolis leaders have promised to relocate the encampment as soon as the cash and enlargement plans are in place.

However livid neighbors don’t imagine them.

“We perceive that metropolis workers has said that the neighbors are absolutely on board with this plan. That might not be farther from the reality,” learn a letter despatched final month to the Metropolis Council and metropolis supervisor that was signed by 47 individuals who reside close to Metropolis Corridor.

One neighbor, a 73-year-old girl who has owned her home for 39 years, informed The Instances that the town made no effort to speak to close by residents.

The girl, who didn’t give her title as a result of she feared being harassed by folks within the encampment, mentioned she fearful about fires, with folks cooking beneath the timber and a few utilizing propane heaters of their tents. She mentioned she additionally fearful about weak senior residents residing amongst different campers “who’re actual bullies.”

A homeless man on a bike loaded with plastic bags gives the peace sign.

Jerry O’Dell returns to his tent, proper, at a homeless encampment at Ojai’s Metropolis Corridor.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

One other neighbor — a 43-year-old single mom of three who additionally declined to provide her title — mentioned a person from the camp lunged at her 12-year-old daughter as she rode a skateboard and that her youngsters “don’t really feel protected.”

“We really feel like our neighborhood has been taken over,” she mentioned. “It’s fully modified the vibe right here. There’s a port-a-potty proper on the nook that doesn’t give the homeless folks any privateness. It doesn’t really feel like a compassionate resolution for them or for us.”

Throughout Ventura County’s point-in-time census in January 2023, Ojai recorded 44 unhoused folks. That’s a 42% improve from 5 years prior — however a steep decline from the 82 folks counted in 2007, when the annual survey started. In all of Ventura County final yr, there have been 2,441 homeless folks, the best quantity for the reason that depend started.

The sharp rise, as in so many locations in California, has coincided with skyrocketing housing prices.

The typical dwelling worth in Ventura County was $834,180 in December 2023, up 38% from December 2018, in line with Zillow. The median lease was $2,373 in December 2023, up practically 23% from 2018, in line with information from the actual property agency House Record.

In Ojai, the housing scarcity has been compounded by strict slow-growth laws, which — together with a ban on chain stores — had been supposed to keep up the small-town allure. Earlier than an condo complicated opened in 2019, the town had gone for more than a decade with out constructing any multifamily housing.

In December, the Metropolis Council authorized a 50-unit improvement that can be Ojai’s first entirely affordable housing project in 30 years. This month, the council tightened a ban on short-term trip leases, arguing they’re driving up housing prices.

“We natives have labored and volunteered tons of of hours to maintain our city small,” mentioned Councilwoman Suza Francina, a yoga trainer who has lived in Ojai for 67 years. “The irony is that now we’re so fascinating and internationally recognized that folks wish to make investments. The brand new wave of individuals, they arrive right here and might afford second and even third properties.”

Longtime residents, she mentioned, are being priced out — together with herself.

Ojai city councilmembers seated at their dais.

Ojai Metropolis Councilwoman Suza Francina, second from proper, practically misplaced her seat final yr after she was priced out of her rental housing and quickly moved right into a storage room at a pal’s dwelling outdoors her district.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

In late 2021, Francina, 74, misplaced the two-bedroom home she had leased for eight years when an investor bought it, she mentioned. Francina had been paying $1,650 a month in lease. She later noticed it listed for $4,000 a month.

Francina, a former mayor, had spent greater than a decade on the Metropolis Council. To maintain her seat, she needed to keep inside her district, a roughly two-square-mile portion of south Ojai.

Francina couldn’t discover an inexpensive rental that will settle for her two small canine, Benny and Honey. Whereas she searched, she moved, rent-free, right into a small room with no kitchen above a pal’s storage that was in Ojai however not in her district. Francina put most of her belongings in storage and said she was homeless, arguing that people who find themselves couch-surfing match the outline.

She was investigated by the Ventura County Grand Jury, which, in a report last May, mentioned her seat was legally vacant since she didn’t discover housing in her district inside 30 days. However she was not faraway from workplace.

Late final summer season, Francina rented a bed room in a home in her district for $950 a month plus utilities, together with a $300-per-month storage unit. The state of affairs, she mentioned, “broadened my complete perspective on how laborious it’s should you don’t have a house base, and the way shortly it impacts your psychological well being, how one can go downhill in a short time.”

A woman stands near a blue tent on wooded property.

Kristen Wingate, who grew up in Ojai, turned homeless whereas recovering from a neck surgical procedure.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

Kristen Wingate, who was born in Ojai and has spent most of her life right here, additionally misplaced her rental home. However in contrast to Francina, she wound up within the Metropolis Corridor encampment.

Wingate, 52, has degenerative disc illness. Two years in the past, after a neck fusion surgical procedure, she went on state incapacity. However the cash ran out after a yr, she mentioned, and he or she was not medically cleared to return to her job at an area ironmongery shop. She mentioned her software to obtain Social Safety incapacity advantages was denied, a choice she is interesting.

Whereas she was recovering, she mentioned, the proprietor of her rental home, which was break up into three models, bought it. Tenants needed to go away.

Wingate lived in her Toyota Camry for some time and, in August, moved right into a tent at Metropolis Corridor with Roscoe, her 50-pound pug and Boston terrier combine. The dimensions of the camp broke her coronary heart, she mentioned, and “every part is simply too costly right here” on this city she grew up in. A pal she has recognized since she was 6 additionally lives on the encampment.

A woman tends to her dog outside a sturdy brown tent.

Kristen Wingate tends to her canine, Roscoe, outdoors her tent in Ojai.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Instances)

Wingate’s brown tent sits close to a wood gazebo with chipped white paint. Her sister bought married there many years in the past. Now, there are tents on both facet.

Nelson lives close by in one of many new white tents, beneath an unlimited eucalyptus tree, along with her 3-year-old chihuahua combine, Mae Mae.

Bespectacled, with shoulder-length grey hair and a fast giggle, Nelson mentioned she misplaced her husband to pancreatic most cancers six years in the past. She ran out of cash, moved out of her home, then out of a lodge. She moved to Metropolis Corridor simply earlier than Thanksgiving.

She is stoic, a trait from her south Texas upbringing. Requested if the previous few years had been powerful, she downplayed her state of affairs: “Slightly powerful, yeah. However the folks right here all the time made it higher. And being in Ojai simply made all of it higher.”

She hopes the town is ready to construct tiny properties for folks within the encampment. For now, she waits.

On a latest Tuesday evening, at a Metropolis Council assembly inside Metropolis Corridor, a dialogue about giving grant cash to native artists dragged on for greater than an hour. Then protesters — together with one soaked in faux blood who collapsed and carried out the motions of dying — known as for a cease-fire in Gaza, half a world away.

Simply outdoors, temperatures dipped into the 40s. In her tent, Nelson piled on blankets, held her canine shut and went to sleep.

Instances workers author Andrew Khouri contributed to this report.


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