Houseless in Ojai

Anne Berg, 42, lives in a tent hidden in a patch of woods in Ojai, California, with her boyfriend. Berg has thin scars that span like a checkerboard on the inside of her left forearm and remnants of cigarette burns litters her body. Her dog, Guinness, is usually by her side and the two of them can usually be found at the “grown up table” behind the tennis courts at Libbey Park in downtown Ojai. 

“It’s gone on longer than I thought it would,” Berg says of being in Ojai. Originally from Oxnard, California, she has been homeless off and on for three years. “When I came out here I didn’t think it was going to last this long.” 

Berg says she suffers from several mental health issues and is coming out of an eight-year addiction to meth. She moved to Ojai to start a new life for herself. “I felt like I had no choice when I came out here,” she says. “Because I would not, I could not, tolerate what my husband was doing anymore. Slamming drugs, beating me, cheating on me. It was just horrible.”

After leaving her husband, Berg tried to get into a battered woman’s shelter but says that “they were giving me the run around” so she moved to Ojai.

Berg has three children, ages of 21, 18 and 16. Her oldest son will soon be released from jail in Ventura and her daughter recently moved to Sacramento with a boyfriend. Berg’s youngest son lives in Meiners Oaks with his father but is hoping to move to Sacramento to be with his sister. When she first became homeless, Berg tried to take her youngest son with her but says he didn’t want to live in a shelter. 

Berg met her 38-year-old boyfriend, Kyle Wheeler, at the seasonal homeless shelter in Ojai in March of 2013. She says they fell in love and started living with each other almost immediately but notes that it is difficult to maintain a relationship without having stable living conditions or income. “We have some trouble sometimes,” she said. “Exes and things like that, you know, but I just think that’s part of everybody’s relationship.”

Much of Berg and Wheeler’s day is spent drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer at the ”grown up table” with friends. The couple do odd jobs for community members when they need extra money. Berg says that she is propositioned at least once every few weeks but says, “If I wanted to be a hooker I wouldn’t need to be homeless, I’d be living in a penthouse.” Wheeler often gets jealous of Berg when she talks to other men. Recently, he spent a few nights in jail after getting into a drunken fist fight with a man who he claimed was flirting with Berg. 

There are many other suitors who would like to take Wheeler’s place as Berg’s boyfriend. The same night Wheeler was last arrested, Berg was blackout drunk and was taken home by a friend named Barry. Berg says Barry has been love with her for years. Occasionally when she and Wheeler are on a “break” she’ll spend a week at Barry’s house and she says “he looks out for me.” Berg later admitted she is not attracted to him but feels bad because he’s so nice. “I don’t like Barry like that,” she said. “I don’t want to date him. I love Kyle.”

Lisa, Berg’s friend, says it is common for men to take homeless women under their wing but adds that they often expect romantic compensation in exchange for their kindness.

Berg chose to live in Ojai over places like Ventura because she says that it’s safer. “People in Ventura are vicious,” Berg said. “They run with territories and are violent. It’s dangerous.”

Kelly, a good friend of Berg’s, was homeless for a week in Ventura and recounts her own experience: “I was strangled and raped my first night out there. The [expletive] almost killed me. Ojai is much safer. We have much more of a community up here than in Ventura. We look out for each other.” 

In May of 2013, the Urban Initiatives Organization documented over 300 homeless individuals living in the city of Ventura alone. Although, recent local law enforcement estimates suggest this number is higher. The same study recorded Ojai as having 23 documented homeless persons but Berg guesses there are currently around 60. 

In the future, Berg and Wheeler hope to get a trailer together. Although it is difficult for Berg to hold down a job because of her mental health issues, she says she doesn’t intend to be without a home much longer.