Task force no more?

Council member raises possibility of eliminating homelessness panel

Simi Valley’s Taskforce on Homelessness could be getting a new name—or it might soon be disbanded.

Both possibilities were discussed at Monday’s City Council meeting as part of a larger discussion on committee and task force appointments, which included a recommendation to possibly reinstate a task force to address issues involving heroin and other dangerous drugs (see story below).

Before leaving office in December, Councilmember Ruth Luevanos had suggested renaming the Taskforce on Homelessness. She was a member of the task force and wanted the council to pick a more sensitive name. The word “homelessness,” she felt, was pejorative.

The task force was established by the council in 1999 to address homelessness in Simi Valley. It’s made up of two elected city officials, along with representatives from regional and local service providers and government agencies that assist unhoused individuals or people at risk of becoming unhoused. It meets quarterly and provides policy recommendations to help develop the community’s response to homelessness.

As the name change was being discussed—one possibility mentioned was Taskforce for the Unhoused—Mayor Pro Tem Mike Judge switched gears and raised the idea of dissolving the group entirely. Judge has served on the task force since he was first elected to the council 12 years ago.

“My recommendation on the (task force) is to disband it,” Judge said. “When you put together a task force, the name and title gives you the expectation that something is going to be done.

“The Taskforce on Homelessness does nothing to prevent or stop homelessness. What it does, it brings entities from the county and city together so they can basically discuss homelessness,” he added. “We do not have a large homeless crisis right now like other cities in our county and over the hill do.”

Judge said having issues involving unhoused individuals handled by a city employee would save staff time and money. It should be that person’s job to coordinate with Simi’s Samaritan Center, as well as the county, and to make sure county and state resources are provided to the homeless in the city, he said.

Judge told the Acorn after the meeting that the task force was initially set up to make sure the city got its fair share of state and federal funding, a goal he said was accomplished in the first year.

Councilmember Elaine Litster asked Judge during the meeting if the task force generated more coordination between different agencies.

“No, (the entities) did their job, and we just sat around and talked about it. That was it.” Judge responded.

Judge said he first suggested ending the task force six years ago.

“It’s just a waste of a lot of staff effort,” he said.

Councilmember Rocky Rhodes said at the meeting that while he agreed that the task force may not be necessary, he appreciates the city’s participation in the effort to understand and address homelessness and to partner with the Samaritan Center. He also asked if the city needed more help from the council on the issue.

City Manager Brian Gabler said several staff members work on homelessness issues, and much is being done at the county level to address the issue, too.

“I wouldn’t say that there are any holes that need to be filled, but we’ll certainly (ask for the Council’s help) if it comes to that point,” he said. “We won’t be shy with wanting to bring something back (to the council).”

When City Attorney David Caceres reminded the council that disbanding the task force was not on the agenda, the discussion turned again to the name change.

Litster said changing the task force to a committee might be better.

“I want to be sure that we are not perceived as not being concerned about that issue in our community,” Litster said.

Rhodes said changing the name to Taskforce for the Unhoused would be appropriate.

“That’s a reasonable ask. And maybe for a future agenda item we decide whether we have that at all,” Rhodes said.

Discussions about renaming the task force or possibly eliminating it all together could be placed on the council’s agenda next month.

On Monday, Simi resident Ryan Valencia, who served on the task force in 2019 and 2020 as a state representative for Assemblymember Christy Smith, told the Acorn he was upset about the suggestion to disband the group.

“It’s an area I’m very passionate about,” Valencia said.

Groups like the task force, he said, are crucial because they’re made up of people “who have a deep understanding of the challenges of those who are unhoused.”

“That’s how you solve homelessness— by bringing every level of government and nonprofits and community partners . . . to the same table,” Valencia said. “Having a staff member do this (work) on their own is abdicating responsibility.”

As he served with Judge on the task force, Valencia said he felt that the council member appeared “disinterested” about what is “a very complex issue.”

“I was concerned with his approach to dealing with homelessness for quite some time,” Valencia said.

How the task force works and what’s been accomplished to date

Mara Malch, Simi Valley’s deputy environmental services director, oversees the city’s Task Force on Homelessness. She offered some insight into how the group operates and what it has accomplished since it was formed in 1999.

Two city employees are responsible for planning the group’s agendas and providing support at the quarterly meetings. “In total, the staff time directly related to the task force is minimal, with meeting preparation, planning and meeting attendance being about 10 to 15 hours a year for each of these employees,” Malch said in an email.

Representatives from the Simi Valley Police Department attend and participate in discussions. They spend a great deal of time responding to inquiries and connecting unhoused individuals to services, and will continue doing so regardless of the status of the task force, Malch said.

The task force was initially formed to assess the community’s response to homelessness and the ability of those in need to access services. Over the years, through community dialogue and interagency collaboration, access to mental health, healthcare, food subsidy and court system services has greatly improved, she said.

As these improvements were implemented by the various service providers, the group’s role has shifted away from resources and referrals to general policy discussions among member agencies about how to best continue providing services to those in need.

Some recent recommendations from the task force included encouraging the city to pilot a Safe Park Program, and to participate in the Ventura Countywide Homelessness Memorandum of Understanding.