A Haven for Community-based Problem Solving
Several years ago I was doing some research on civic innovation at the local government level. It wasn’t hard to find good examples, but many of them were old and out of date, or already familiar to the practitioners and researchers in the field of democratic governance and deliberative democracy. Part of my job was to find new examples, and one of the very best examples I found was River Haven.
For as long as anyone could remember, homeless people have camped out in the dry bed of the Ventura River, but with El Niño sitting off the coast of California, the weather was a lot wetter than usual, and the risk of flooding was high. Local officials decided they would have to more strictly enforce local ordinances against people camping in the Ventura River.
“The law, in its majestic equality,” quipped Anatole France, “forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The law is the law, but in this case, city officials decided to do more than just enforce the local ordinances.
They also convened a public planning process to deal with the larger issue of homelessness. All the usual “stakeholders” (public safety, business owners, service providers and, of course, the homeless people themselves) were invited, but so were “non-stakeholders,” that is, ordinary citizens who were simply interested in helping address a critical community issue.
The problem was this: many homeless people in Ventura and elsewhere don’t want to stay in shelters. The rules are too strict. They can only be there for certain hours and they keep their things and pets. What’s more, some of the homeless people who camped in the riverbed thought of themselves as part of a community—and they didn’t want to lose that connection.
After a series of what Ventura City Manager Rick Cole described to me as a series of “non-productive meetings with deadlines growing ever-closer,” a local artist with a studio near the river, one of the non-stakeholders, made a suggestion. Why not set up a camp for the homeless somewhere other than in the riverbed?
A philanthropic organization called the Turning Point Foundation stepped forward to be the fiscal agent, and the city made available some land near the harbor. Patterned loosely on similar efforts in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, the camp was called “River Haven,” a self-governing tent village with more than two-dozen residents. The rules were clear—no drugs or alcohol, for instance, and there would be an elected council of residents to enforce them.
I was wondering recently, what had become of River Haven? But I was almost afraid to find out. Some inspiring stories are just too good to be true. Recently, however, I phoned Clyde Reynolds, executive director of the Turning Point Foundation, to find out.
He told me River Haven is still going strong, albeit with some significant changes. Tents have been replaced by geodesic domes, and the screening of residents has become more careful. People have to be serious about wanting to transition out of the camp and into a more permanent kind of housing. Also, and this isn’t surprising, really, the camp isn’t entirely self-governing. Today there is more direct regulation by foundation management.
Self-governing or not, River Haven was one of the most vivid and interesting stories of civic engagement and collaborative problem solving I found. Homelessness is a perfect example of what deliberative democracy types call a “wicked problem,” that is, a persistent, complex challenge for which there is no easy solution. Citizens met together, including the homeless themselves. They deliberated on a complex issue and came up with a list of proposals, River Haven being one of them, and that is community problem-solving at its best.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.