A glance into homelessness in Riverside County
The sun was still rising that Saturday morning and it was already hot. The desert sand gleamed under the sunlight, and what little wind did flare up only seemed to toss sand around.
A man with one shoe hobbled past the makeshift tents set up with sheets, insulation and tarps that acted as walls and ceilings. Broken bikes lay on their sides, their wheels slowly turning in the breeze. Collected bottles, boxes, grocery carts, tins and old furniture littered the ground in front of their tents — their homes.
On the edge of Riverside County in Palm Desert, a small community of homeless men and women decided a small patch of sand next to Interstate 60 would be where they return every night. This vulnerable community is made up of some who collected bottles to recycle and earn money and others who had jobs at local businesses but did not earn enough to afford permanent housing.
Danny Chcon, who has been homeless for almost four years after a bad divorce, owns a smaller, red tent on the edge of this encampment. He spends his days trying to stay cool in the summer, dumpster-diving for food or things to sell, and hoping he will be able to get off the streets in a few months.
“It’s miserable. It’s windy, hot and dry. We only get water so often. It’s getting crowded, too,” Chcon said. “We want to be at peace but it’s hard when we have to watch over our shoulders. It’s tough.”
Chcon’s story is one of far too many of its kind. California, in particular, has been notorious for the number of homeless who reside in its cities. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2017, Los Angeles has the second highest population of homeless people nationide while San Diego has the fourth highest.
To estimate the size of the homeless community, HUD conducts an annual study called the Point-in-Time Homeless Count and Survey (PIT Count), which revealed an 11.5 percent increase in homelessness between 2016 and 2017, while the unsheltered count hiked by 21.2 percent in Riverside County alone.
While HUD defines homelessness as a lack of permanent housing — whether it is in a shelter or a transitional housing program — “unsheltered” refers to someone who sleeps on the streets, under interstate overpasses and in parks — any place people are not meant to sleep.
The PIT Count is run and conducted by volunteers on a specific day at the beginning of each year. The volunteers are taken to previously identified locations and instructed to interview homeless people based on a survey provided to them.
If a volunteer deems the person cannot be interviewed, they fill out an observational survey. This means the actual number is most likely higher than the one reported.
“The Point-in-Time Count itself is not that scientific. It’s a count. It’s a snapshot,” said Emilio Ramirez, director of the Office of Homeless Solutions for the City of Riverside. “People know when the Point-in-Time is and, much like the census, if you don’t want to be counted, you don’t answer the door. Therein lies the flaw in the count.”
Chronically Homeless Underserved
While conducting the PIT count, HUD also grants Riverside County almost $10 million every year to provide services, housing and shelter to help put people on the streets directly into housing.
Even with a $10 million government grant, some of the programs funded by HUD have reported few people exiting to a permanent destination and less than 100 percent bed utilization in their shelters, meaning beds are still going unused and many people leave the program without a place they can call home.
The Housing Authority reported nine people exiting its program from August 2016 to July 2017, with only four of them exiting to an apartment or home. Another of the Housing Authority’s programs reported eight people transitioning into a permanent place of the 14 who exited from June 2016 to May 2017.
Other programs report successful percentages of people exiting to permanent destinations, but the majority served were not chronically homeless, which is defined by HUD as an individual who has been continuously homeless for at least a year or has accumulated more than 12 months in which he or she was both on the street and suffering from a disability — a more difficult path back to self-sufficiency.
For example, from July 2016 to June 2017, Path of Life Shelter’s Rapid Rehousing program reported serving just two chronically homeless persons, and Valley Restart Shelter’s Rapid Rehousing program reported serving four people. The City of Riverside’s Rapid Rehousing program fared similarly, only serving three chronically homeless persons from November 2016 to October 2017.
The numbers suggest these programs were focusing on people who had not quite hit rock bottom yet rather than attempting to serve those who might need it most — homeless individuals with mental disabilities.
Even though beds are going empty as the rate of homelessness climbs, programs are returning some of HUD’s funding.
New Initiative Working
Hoping to remedy this problem, the City of Riverside voted unanimously March 13 to pass the Housing First Initiative. This approach is designed to put people in housing initially and then provide them with services such as substance-abuse counseling and job referrals to help them acquire the skills and resources to remain in that housing. It is a promising approach — Housing First was used successfully in 2016 to house most of Riverside’s homeless veterans, as well as veterans across the country.
“Homelessness is often based on some form of trauma, whether you imposed it or it was imposed on you. So there is this need to recover from that trauma,” Ramirez said. “Their method out of it is not a unit — housing is not going to do it for them. They’re still suffering from the same trauma that they were suffering from when they were living outside (of a shelter). It would be irresponsible for us to not offer those social services. We can offer those supportive services that we know they need within the safety of a shelter.”
This new Housing First Initiative hopes to reduce the number of homeless individuals in Riverside, but non-profits, churches or individuals can help fill the gaps on a humanitarian level that the local or federal government leave open.
“Government can try, but the government was not designed to take care of people,” said Monica Sapien, executive director of recently founded, non-profit Social Work Action Group. “Every single community does have the resources to take care of their homeless or their at-risk individuals. The resources are there to help those people become self-sufficient. It’s really a matter of aligning those resources and try to coordinate those efforts.”
Sapien is a former city employee who said she felt she could be more effective outside of the public sector. She and her husband Aaron Petroff, director of programs at SWAG, now work closely with individuals on the street to make connections to better help them. This could include taking people to a rehabilitation center, assisting them in getting new IDs, finding a safe place for them to live within a campsite, bringing professional therapists or counselors out into their encampments and more. SWAG is also working to create a better sampling system to discover a more accurate portrayal of the homeless population in Riverside County. Sapien and Petroff both felt they could be more productive and work more intimately with people who are homeless when they did not have to wait for the wheels of government to turn.
“We’re taking action. There’s not a lot of red tape so if we wanted to feed someone, we could feed them. If someone allows us to pray with them, we can do that too,” Sapien said. “We can truly work with an individual and whatever that may take. We can be creative and there’s no red tape we have to be mindful of.”
While Sapien and Petroff both said housing is important, they believe the focus should be on addressing the opioid crisis and mental illness before placing someone in housing and, Petroff said, essentially setting them up to fail.
“When people are working in the homeless arena, it’s well-intentioned. But everything is moving farther away from that person on the street. Those people don’t want help because they are battling with demons,” Petroff said. “It’s hard to understand until you’ve done it for months and years and you try every strategy to convince somebody (to get help). Then you can see how deep they are and how intensive our approach needs to be. That’s because of the opioid problem and mental health. People aren’t seeing that but that’s where the focus needs to be. Everything else is futile.”
Chronic Homelessness Could Decline
If the government continues to work alongside organizations that are able to work more personally with people who are homeless, Riverside County could begin to see the rate of chronic homelessness decline — a collaborative result of one’s emphasis on policy and the other’s on people.
“It doesn’t work to expect that the whole of the village that the person needs is going to be built by one person,” Ramirez said. “(The city) needs to do what we can do, which is create the environment that people will want to contribute — change the policy, change the zone and maybe invest a little bit of money to make it viable.”
SWAG leaders also said they recognize the complexities of helping people in these multifaceted situations.
“Human beings are complex. You can see if someone’s got a broken arm, but you can’t always identify if someone has a mental illness. We can’t prescribe when someone is going to be healed,” Petroff said. “But that’s why we’re in this situation. There’s no easy fix. We want to combat homelessness, but it’s hard to say you’re going to end homelessness.”
Chcon said he hopes to be into a home with a car, job, paid bills and a full refrigerator in a few months but, until that happens, he said he wants to be treated like any other person.
“We’re still human. Don’t downgrade us because we’re homeless. We do what we have to do out here. It doesn’t mean we’re at the b
ottom of the food chain because we’re not,” Chcon said. “We’re just like anyone (else). I don’t know why people look at us like we’re scum. It’s sad society thinks that way about the homeless.”