Riverside seeks solutions for city’s ‘homeless situation

Hayden Schuljak | Banner | A homeless woman in downtown Riverside sits outside an abandoned gas station with all of her belongings.

While the rate of homelessness in Riverside County has decreased in recent years, public perception is that it has increased. According to the city’s 2017 Homeless Point in Time Count, Riverside county has 1,638 unsheltered homeless people living on the streets and 814 living in shelters. This is a 12 percent decrease from the 2015 reports, and the population of sheltered and unsheltered homeless combined is currently estimated by them to be at 2,165.

The Department of Public Social Services, however, estimates these numbers to be significantly higher at 2,811 for the total population, a 21 percent increase this year in comparison to 2018.

One of the reasons the general public sees an increase in homeless is because of the larger number of homeless people living near popular shopping centers.

Sean Sandhu, owner of a local Waba Grill, said homelessness has affected his business negatively, making it harder for customers to enter the restaurant.

“It has increased small crimes — petty theft and loitering — in the area,” Sandhu said. “Because of those crimes in the area, customers don’t feel safe enough to come to my restaurant.”

Sandhu said he believes law enforcement does much to help the community, but their approach may not solve the homelessness problem in the long-term.

“(Homeless) people migrate from place to place in the county,” Shadhu said. “Law enforcement does a good job handling homeless individuals, but all that does is force homeless people to migrate. We need more government programs and projects to keep people off the streets,” Shadhu said.

Ben Higgins, junior criminal justice major, said he knows of the transportation of the homeless population between counties in California.

“I am aware that towns and cities will pick up homeless people and bus them to other towns to get rid of homeless people out of their town,” Higgins said.

Throughout the Riverside County area, there are many people and organizations who are trying to help those in the  homeless community.

Higgins, as a student at California Baptist University, said he has not had first-hand experience with the Riverside County homeless population but learns about it in his criminal justice courses.

“A big factor in homelessness is drug abuse. Homelessness is brought up a lot in criminal justice courses and people who are addicted to drugs will use whatever means necessary to get their next fix, whether that is crime or using friends for money,” Higgins said.

In June 2019, the Riverside Public Safety Engagement team worked with hundreds of homeless people near an industrial park. Workers there estimated between 90-95 percent of the chronically homeless turned down services they were offered, or did not follow through on information. Higgins noted that this is what makes drug abuse such a complex challenge.

“They are not looking at those resources there. They are looking at ‘what can I (do) to be able to get my next fix?’” Higgins said.

Many homeless people may be mentally ill, physically disabled or struggle with drug abuse. Ultimately, many people do not have answers to the challenging problems that homelessness presents.

“Homelessness is an issue in the criminal justice system that will fester for as long as we have the system,” Higgins said. “As a Christian going into the criminal justice field, the best thing to do is just pray for them, but you can’t make legislation for that.”

While some suggest prison as a way for drug abusers to stay clean, Higgins said he was concerned with this strategy.

“Statistically speaking, we are at 200 — 300 percent capacity in our prisons and jails and 80 percent of those incarcerated are incarcerated because of drug-related issues. Just arresting people won’t fix the issue,” Higgins said.

Having a large homeless population can also increase crimes, such as car break-ins and theft in many communities. Because of this, businesses in Riverside frequently hire security guards to watch over the community. 

Derrick Garcia, security guard at a local shopping center, said he believes the homeless population is the reason he is assigned to secure the area.

“To a point, no one, especially older women or mothers, likes shopping around homeless people,” Garcia said.

Garcia said this has a negative impact on local businesses.

“Some stores lose business because (homeless people) are hanging around the area. They scare a lot of people just because they are homeless and some are mentally unstable,” Garcia said.

The California Homeless Emergency Aid Program and the California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program have already granted Riverside County $10.02 million in assistance this year. Yet, many locals have seen little change.

While the solution to the homeless situation may not arrive right away, there are still practical things students can do to help the homeless community in the meantime. Higgins shared some of his suggestions.

“Pray for them. Do not hand out money to the homeless. If you have some extra cash on you, go somewhere and buy them some food,” Higgins said. “You don’t know if they are actually going to use that money for good or for evil. Go get them a sandwich if you actually want to help.”

For more information on rates of homelessness in Riverside, resources for those on the verge of homelessness and volunteer opportunities to aid organizations that fight homelessness, visit www.endhomeless.info.

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