Sheriff’s newly formed Homeless Outreach Team to aid and assist with homeless related issues

Trevor Montgomery

Riverside County News Source

Sheriff Stan Sniff, of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, recently announced the department’s implementation of a new Homeless Outreach Team. The team consists of two sheriff’s deputies, whose primary responsibility will be to address homeless issues within all communities served by the department.

In a press release from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Capt. Jason Horton explained, “Homelessness exists in virtually every community across the nation, including Riverside County. Homeless individuals live in all communities the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement services to.” The release continued, “This includes 17 of the 28 cities within Riverside County as well as all unincorporated communities of the county.”

The newly created Homeless Outreach Team will be tasked with not only identifying homeless individuals living throughout the sheriff’s department’s operational areas, but is intended to help coordinate the delivery of resources available to homeless living throughout the entire county.

Getting an accurate count of homeless essential

In the press release, Capt. Horton wrote, “There are approximately 1,600 homeless individuals living in Riverside County on any given day.” Some officials and community outreach members admit though that the actual number of homeless in the county could be considerably different from the official count, as it is difficult to count individuals who are transient and who often move from one place to another on a day-to-day basis.

The new Homeless Outreach Team will begin its regional operation by trying to get a more accurate idea of how many homeless actually live within the county. The department plans on accomplishing this updated count by helping coordinate a countywide “Point-In-Time” (PIT) count of all homeless living within their coverage areas.

According to the Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), the PIT Count is a count and survey of Riverside County’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population. DPSS, in partnership with Riverside County’s Continuum of Care, is required to conduct this biannual count in late January. In the press release from the sheriff’s department, Capt. Horton stated the PIT count is scheduled to occur next week.

Those most at risk and inmates re-integrating back into society

to be focuses of program

Homeless encampment in Temecula. Patch photo.

Homeless encampment in Temecula. Patch photo.

Another primary goal for the department’s Homeless Outreach Team has been to initiate immediate planning to educate and respond to homeless individuals who could likely be most affected by potential flooding caused by this year’s projected El Niño related storms.

With this year’s storms predicted to usher in the worst weather conditions in years, homeless individuals living in encampments along creek beds, washes and under overpasses are at greater risk of being injured if storms were to create flooding in the area.

In addition to identifying those sheltered and unsheltered homeless who are already living within Riverside County, the team will also attempt to identify incarcerated inmates who have a higher probability of becoming homeless upon their release. This will be a focus in order to ensure those individuals re-integrating back into society become less likely to repeat a cycle of crime or violence while being homeless.

Homeless military veterans will be one of many focal points for the new team

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Volunteers are fanning out across Riverside County and the Coachella Valley surveying people living on the streets. Dessert Sun photo

According to Capt. Horton, another of the stated goals for the program is to gain a more comprehensive picture regarding those homeless who are military veterans.

In 2013, one study estimated at least 181 self-reported military veterans were living on the streets of Riverside County. The most recent count in Jan. 2014, found 173 such homeless veterans in the county. However, when those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing were added in to those figures, the total homeless veteran count went up from 285 in 2013 to 290 in 2014.

In a previous interview with the Press Enterprise, Jill Kowalski, homeless programs manager for Riverside County’s Department of Social Services, stated, “Based on this number, we know we have more to do. We need to intensify our efforts.” Kowalski continued, “The veterans we counted in our unsheltered count are veterans that are on the streets. They’re living in encampments and under overpasses. They’re our most difficult to reach. 57 percent are the chronically homeless.”

One recent study cited by the National Alliance To End Homelessness, showed that in Jan. 2014, participating communities across America identified 49,933 homeless military veterans during coordinated PIT counts. That number represented 8.6 percent of the total counted homeless population in America.

One community leader, Linda Nunez, founder of the non-profit organization Veteran’s Alliance of Southern California, feels the numbers represented by the PIT count do not necessarily reflect an accurate count of homeless veterans. “Personally, I think most estimates are low, regardless of the reporting system being used,” Nunez stated.

“If you look at all age groups, from World War II to now, veterans represent less than 10 percent of the general population. But within the homeless population, it is estimated that 25 percent to 38 percent of them are veterans,” Nunez explained. She believes part of the discrepancy in the data is due to the fact that the count is entirely based on self-reporting. “It is up to the individual being counted to not only admit to being homeless but they have to admit to being a veteran as well,” Nunez said.

“Part of the problem in obtaining services and assistance for veterans is the chronic homeless vet is usually older, medically needy or compromised, and not eligible for federal benefits. Either because of their discharge status, or because they were in the National Guard or Reserves,” according to Nunez. “So, unless they were actually deployed overseas, neither are considered actual veterans under federal law.”

Many studies confirm veterans continue to remain over-represented in the homeless population in America, however some organizations claim these numbers represent a substantial decrease of 67.4 percent in the number of homeless veterans counted just five years earlier in 2009.

In addition to other steps to help focus on the homeless issue among veterans, the program will rely on veteran based events, such as the U.S. VETS led “Stand Down” events. The original Stand Down event for homeless veterans was modeled after the Stand Down concept used during the Vietnam War.

On their website, the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans explained during combat, a safe retreat was created for soldiers returning back from combat operations. These were special camps were intended to provide a safe retreat for units returning from combat operations. At secure base camp areas, troops were able to take care of personal hygiene, get clean uniforms, enjoy warm meals, receive medical and dental care, mail and receive letters, and enjoy the camaraderie of friends in a safe environment. Stand Down afforded battle-weary soldiers the opportunity to renew their spirit, health and overall sense of well-being.

Many goals set for the new Homeless Outreach Team

Capt. Horton outlined a number of areas and issues the Homeless Outreach Team will be focusing on and tasks the team will be performing:

  • Coordinate directly with the Veterans Administration in locating military veterans among the homeless population.
  • Coordinate assistance and resources with non-profit agencies, such as Riverside County Health to Hope Healthy bus.
  • Liaison with the Department’s Corrections Division regarding inmates being released from custody who have a higher likelihood of becoming homeless. This will be done to offer “re-entry methods” meant to prevent homelessness.
  • Provide additional training to all department personnel, in both field and corrections divisions.
  • Meet with other allied law enforcement agencies throughout the county to discuss homeless liaison duties and methods.
  • Continually follow-up and work with governmental agencies that deal with homeless individuals’ status to find permanent housing as well as individuals who have already been placed.
  • Preparation and execution of the annual “Point in Time” (PIT) countywide count of homeless event.
  • Attend countywide homeless related meetings, training and seminars, including the Continuum of Care.
  • Attend homeless related events, such as the US VETS led “Stand Down” events.
  • Provide detailed presentations to city groups and organizations to help educate citizens to the sensitive issues related to homelessness.
  • Coordinate and execute Magnet events where county and non-profit groups can offer services and resources directly to homeless individuals.
  • Ensure panhandlers are aware of city and county ordinance violations in all operational areas and adhere to established laws related to panhandling.
  • Visit homeless encampments throughout the county to ensure inhabitants are not violating laws or trespassing on private property or other prohibited land.
  • Provide law enforcement escort to social and community groups wanting to visit homeless encampments, so outreach services can be offered directly to those needing the available services and resources.
  • Monitor areas that have been cleared of homeless encampments and ensure homeless do not return to those prohibited areas.
  • Work alongside members of Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), to effectively engage homeless individuals coming into contact with law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system.

Many agencies will be involved

Capt. Horton explained the team will work together with other law enforcement agencies throughout the county as well as the Riverside County Continuum of Care Network. The Continuum of Care Network consists of both private and county-wide public sector homeless service providers. These programs have been designed to promote community-wide planning and the strategic use of resources to address homelessness and related issues.

The Continuum of Care program provides many resources for homeless individuals and families, including assistance by leveraging funding needed through the HUD Consolidated Application. Doing so provides collaboration between providers of housing and homeless assistance programs and other federal programs.

The program also works to improve and expand the collection of data throughout Riverside County, develop performance measurements for all areas throughout the county, and allows for each community to tailor their own programs to the particular strengths and challenges within those communities. One of the program’s stated goals is to “assist people to achieve stability through self-sufficiency.”

Some of the program’s activities include the annual HUD Continuum of Care Programs Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA), the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), and the PIT count.

The team will also contact homeless individuals about upcoming Magnet events. Magnet events are designed to maximize the delivery of outreach services to homeless individuals living in encampments at a one day event.

During these events, multiple service providers come together to areas near known homeless camps and areas where homeless are known to congregate. The purpose is to make outreach services available to those homeless individuals who do not have the ability to travel.

Building trust will be essential

Nunez supports the efforts of the sheriff’s department, however she recently stated, “It’s a needed effort, but tricky.” She believes one of the best chances for success will be to always have an available social worker and a nurse on the team. “The Homeless Outreach Team will need to find a way to break through the natural distrust and suspicion the homeless will have toward law enforcement officers and other officials,” she explained.

A typical homeless encampment found during last year' PIT count.

A typical homeless encampment found in a riverbed during last year’ PIT count.

“It can help, but a lot of homeless persons will see the deputies as a threat, as intrusive even,” Nunez explained. “Many who are homeless will be fearful that deputies and others may see and focus on the filth and the squalor and the potential for disaster, like the El Niño floods expected this year. But many of the homeless see us as walking into their home.”

“As trust builds, the homeless will reveal where they encamp. Then deputies will be able to ask, ‘Can we come in?'” she explained. “Even just leaving needed resources near the encampment with flyers that the deputies are there to help, not invade, and let the homeless come to the resources left out for them would help, at least until trust is built.”

Nunez believes one way for the team to find early success will be to coordinate with established homeless outreach programs, to act as a “buffer” for the newly formed team. “Although there will still be many that look at law enforcement officers as a threat, and may even blame or get angry at the known outreach teams bringing the officers into their encampments, the real change will come once trust has been established,” she stated.

“The bottom line is, even if we use all the shelters and mission-based programs, there is a greater need for beds than how many are available,” Nunez said. “Many homeless know or believe they will be turned away for services, so they don’t even ask.” Nunez explained, “Because there is such a fear of authority, many homeless are resistant to any official interactions, especially with law enforcement officers. This will be a big part of overcoming the resistance for the sheriff’s department when they go into encampments.”

“Communities have to see homelessness as a social issue, not as a crime. By doing so, funds can not only be designated, but programs built,” Nunez said. “People say they want to help, but they don’t want the homeless in their own town. So the question becomes where to send those who need the assistance. That’s the question to which there is no answer, then or now, for those who remain on the street,” Nunez stated.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s newly formed Homeless Outreach Team hopes to bridge that gap, to build trust among the homeless community and to bring vitally essential resources to those who need them the most.

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