On Feb. 22, 2018, volunteers set out across Ventura County to try to count the local homeless population. It’s part of an annual effort. JUAN CARLO/THE STAR

The Ventura County Homeless Count was conducted on Feb. 22 in all 10 Ventura County cities. I have volunteered for the homeless count a couple times before and participated again this year.

As a volunteer in Camarillo, you muster at 6 a.m. at the police station. Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chris Dyer was our coordinator. He briefed us on the task at hand, provided safety tips, paired us up in teams and assigned us different areas of the city.

My nonprofit organization had filled 50 packs a couple days prior and provided them to several of the homeless count locations throughout Ventura County. The contents were donated by Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit with a mission to thank every American who serves. Thank you, Operation Gratitude, for providing Ventura County the packs containing socks, snacks and toiletries for our homeless veterans. McDonald’s donated free sandwich coupons for us to hand out.

It was a chilly morning as we headed to our assigned location, and it did not take my team long to find our first homeless person. She was standing in the corner of a parking lot of a local grocery store with a full shopping cart nearby and several bags containing her possessions.

As we approached, we greeted her. She hid her face with her coat and did not want us to look at her. She was not happy to see us and did not want to participate in the count. We called our homeless count coordinator. He provided us her name and later shared with me that he was worried because her health was deteriorating. By law, you cannot force someone into care even when it is clear there are mental health issues preventing them from getting the care they need. We searched the grocery store premises but did not find anyone else, so we headed to our next assigned area.

The next person we located was in a ditch next to Highway 101. He was still asleep under a tree. He was completely covered with blankets when we approached. We greeted him gently and he woke up quickly. His first concern was to see if his bicycle was still on the sidewalk up the embankment. It was, so he turned his attention to us.

This year, the homeless count used an app you downloaded to your phone that helped gather information about the individual, their location and their situation. This gentleman answered the questions and filled us in on his journey through life. He was a veteran and he was missing a leg. He had just recovered from pneumonia and the flu. He used crutches to get around and shared that he would like a prosthesis. When we finished asking him questions, we headed back up the embankment to the adjacent parking.

We found homeless people living in cars, trucks and even a bus. We found homeless standing out front of a gas station and next to a liquor store. Most people did talk to us, but several would not. Later in the day, I attended the local Presbyterian church’s evening meal program and located another homeless man who had already been counted.

In discussions with these vulnerable individuals, I heard several homeless people share that their physical appearance contributed to their homeless condition. Missing limb, missing teeth and physical scars had eroded their confidence and isolated them in the community. Others shared that difficulties in relationships, addiction struggles or job loss had resulted in their current situation. Some of the homeless people we talked to were employed. Many had grown up in the area or had relatives living close by.

It was heartwarming to see all the kind and concerned people working to help our homeless. When you take the time to talk to the homeless, you learn many of them hope their situation will improve. It becomes obvious that homelessness is a problem that will not resolve itself. The Ventura County government and all the cities share this problem and must contribute resources to find solutions. We do not have enough shelters to care for them on cold and rainy nights. Food, clothing and hygiene are daily challenges. You cannot expect them to have access to transportation between cities to get services. Pushing them out of one city to the next does not make the problem go away.

We have resources available and intelligent people are working on the problem, but changes are needed. Agencies working with the homeless do not share information, which creates unnecessary barriers. Finding affordable housing is a challenge. We need county leadership to get full collaboration from all cities, federal, state and local agencies to remove the barriers and develop innovative ways to resolve this problem. We need private-sector property managers’ help. Plus we need churches and nonprofit organizations to fill the gaps.

Everyone agrees homeless children are a priority and their situation must be resolved immediately. There were 81 homeless veterans counted in the county last year. This is not an insurmountable problem. In the case of homeless veterans, there are resources available. New housing solutions are in various stages of development in Oxnard and Ventura but are over a year from opening.

In the near term, we need more landlords who have studio or one-bedroom apartments to step forward and designate at least one apartment for low-income people. This is not about making money. It is about giving so those in need have permanent shelter.

We have three veterans in Oxnard and eight in Ventura eligible to use VASH vouchers. They are actively searching for affordable units. We have veterans in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley who are qualified for Supportive Services for Veteran Families housing assistance but have not been able to find affordable units.

If you can help, contact Amy Luoma, the Ventura County housing specialist in the County Executive Office, at 805-654-2876 or amy.luoma@ventura.org. If you know a veteran who needs assistance, call Gold Coast Veterans Foundation at 805-482-6550.  We are actively assisting the veterans we identified in the count. There are more than 39,000 veterans and many more family members living in Ventura County, and we need your help. Let’s be the county that leaves no veteran behind.

Happenings and veterans events

March 5: Seabees birthday. In 1942, the designation of construction battalions as Seabees and the use of the distinctive insignia was officially approved by the U.S. Navy. Construction Battalion Center Port Hueneme is the home to four battalions and 16 reserve units. We wish all Seabees a happy 76th birthday.

March 13: Veterans orientation, 1:30-3:30 p.m., West County America’s Job Center, 2901 N. Ventura Road, third floor, Oxnard. Information will be available about employment and training programs to get back to work and civilian life. Information on the GI Bill, loans, VA Medical and federal benefits will be available. Call 805-288-8400 to register.

March 24: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., ninth annual charity golf tournament, Los Robles Greens Golf Course, Thousand Oaks. This annual event is sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, Post 741, and benefits local veterans and their families. Cost is $100 per golfer and you must sign up by March 10. Contact Lisa at 805-479-1878 or campost741@verizon.net to register.

April 15: Deadline, James M. Ray Scholarship Program. The Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County scholarship program is named after Staff Sgt. James Ray, USAF, who went to Vietnam in 1968 and was captured by the Viet Cong on March 18, 1968. He died in captivity on Nov. 30, 1969. This year, three scholarships — one for $2,000 and two for $1,000 — will be awarded to Ventura County high school or community college students. The awards are based on judging of submitted essays. Applications are due April 15 and can be found at http://vvvc.org/scholarship.

June 20-25: Vietnam War Moving Wall, Ventura County Government Center, corner of Victoria Avenue and Telephone Road. The Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County are sponsoring the return of the wall. If you would like to make a donation to support the event or become a member of the Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County, contact Larry Seguin at 805-320-4116.

Arts program: The California Arts Council Veterans in the Arts grant program offers financial support to nonprofit organizations, local arts agencies and veterans assistance agencies that provide arts programming to veteran and active-duty populations, their families and caregivers. For more information on how to apply for a grant, visit http://arts.ca.gov/programs/via.php.

If you would like to learn about veteran services and programs or are in need of assistance, contact JC Oberst at 805-482-6550 or jc.oberst@gcvf.org.