City, two groups to serve Temecula’s needy as they tackle “growing homeless problem”

Temecula has joined its largest church and a decades-old nonprofit group to serve the needy and work to eliminate what city officials see as the “growing homeless problem.”

The ambitious effort – to be based in a social services facility the city owns in Old Town – is being launched as Temecula sharpens its approach toward homelessness.

“This is a full-court press,” Councilman Mike Naggar said during a recent hearing on how the city can help those who want to get off the streets and deter those who don’t.

The new program will unfold while Temecula’s homeless population appears to be rising. The increase in Temecula homelessness is occurring despite a reported 31 percent decline in homelessness throughout Riverside County.

Naggar took a more aggressive stance on homelessness at an April 8 hearing than his council colleagues. He said the city should make Temecula “a very uncomfortable place” for transients or homeless residents who won’t work to improve their living condition.

Naggar added that Temecula must avoid becoming “a magnet” for transients from Riverside or other elsewhere who seek social services that aren’t available in their areas.

Council members concurred that steps must be taken, possibly through a public awareness program, to discourage residents from giving money to panhandlers who seek donations at freeway ramps or other locations.

They agreed that law enforcement sweeps, which could include the use of a helicopter, may be used to target homeless encampments and enforce trespassing, public intoxication and other laws and ordinances.

The complexity of the tasks ahead was noted at the hearing by Mayor Maryann Edwards and Scott Treadway, pastor of Rancho Community Church.

“We’re dealing with a very difficult issue, and there’s a reason homelessness has been around for thousands of years,” Edwards noted during the 90-minute discussion and unanimous council action.

Afterward, Treadway took stock of the outcome when questioned by reporters.

“What comes out of that is a strategic plan with the city to solve homelessness, which is a bit of a tall order,” said Treadway, who doubles as the president of Community Mission of Hope, an umbrella outreach group of Rancho Community.

Nearly a year ago, the council voted to accept proposals from groups interested in serving the needy at a Pujol Street facility the city owns and has set aside for social services purposes. In doing so, the city put a small, grassroots nonprofit group on notice that it may no longer be the group tapped to serve the needy and homeless at that location.

The pair of historic buildings was the fifth location for the faith-based Temecula-Murrieta Community Pantry during its 23 years of serving the area.

Years ago, the city moved a historic house and a barn to the south end of Pujol Street to clear the way for the construction of its $73 million Civic Center complex in Old Town. The relocation of the historic Alec Escallier House and its nearby barn was part of a $2.1 million plan to cluster many social services groups along Pujol.

The city spent about $600,000 – much of it from federal block grant funds – to move and renovate the two historic buildings. The Escallier House and barn total about 1,500 square feet.

The council decision to seek service proposals marked the latest twist in a relationship between the city and the nonprofit pantry group that began to fray in the late 1990s. The unraveling between the city and the pantry occurred as Old Town evolved from a sleepy, quirky retail district into a booming hub of restaurants, offices and affordable apartments.

The nonprofit survived the death of a popular founder, the uncertainty caused by the loss of its Old Town lease and also a move forced by the Civic Center construction.

Pantry leaders turned to the city for help after they reported that their efforts to find other rental locations had failed. Council members approved the $1 a year lease as a way to continue serving the needy and to put the pair of historic buildings to use.

In 2011, according to a city report, the pantry served food boxes to the needy that provided 37,000 meals as well as fresh bakery items to more than 14,000 people. The pantry also distributed clothing and blankets and made showers and other services available to clients.

The facility was open from 8 a.m. until noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The city received one “responsive” reply to its May 2013 request for proposals. That response was submitted by Community Mission of Hope along with the involvement of pantry leaders.

No pantry leaders spoke during the April 8 council hearing, which left Treadway to detail how the combined group expected to fulfill the “three-link plan” that Edwards envisioned to address homelessness in the city.

Two audience members commented during the hearing.

Rancho Community traces its roots to Temecula’s country past in the 1960s. The church outgrew several locations before it planted permanent roots along Temecula Parkway. It is now in the third segment of its building plan there, a phase that is set to include a new youth center, gym and additional classrooms.

The church’s sanctuary seats about 1,000 people, and it is the site of four weekly Sunday services. The Temecula Parkway facility is also home to a preschool, a kindergarten through 12th-grade campus and sports fields.

The church also holds a weekly Sunday service at Murrieta’s Mesa High School, which seats about 700 people.

The congregation joined with Orange County Rescue Mission to launch the Community Mission of Hope at Easter 2009. The service group is located in an office complex in Temecula’s northeast corner, and it is open nine hours a week to “feed and provide help and loving counsel to those in need within our local region.”

The Community Mission of Hope is one of six “local impact” groups that the church sponsors with partners or on its own, according to its internet site. Those impact groups largely focus on serving the homeless or helping church members who need home repairs or meals or other services following surgery or financial or personal difficulties.

Mayor Edwards is a member of Rancho Community. Peter Thorson, Temecula city attorney, announced at the hearing that Edwards’ membership would not pose a conflict of interest because she does not serve on the church governing board and has no decision making powers there.

Edwards did not detail her level of church participation during the April 8 hearing. But she noted that Mission of Hope has left “a big footprint” in the area’s social services landscape.

Edwards said the location of her job as executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest County has given her a unique insight into Temecula’s homeless problem. Edwards’ office is based at the club’s Pujol Street facility, which flanks the southern portion of Murrieta Creek. Historically, that segment of the creek, along with a freeway bridge at Highway 79 South, has provided cover for tents and other temporary enclaves used by the homeless.

Edwards said she has noted a rapid uptick in homeless-related activity in that area in recent months.

A 2009 spot check of homeless in the Temecula area netted about eight people who were living in vehicles, tents or other structures near the creek.

That year, more than 200 volunteers fanned out from 23 coordination centers throughout the county for a one-day spot count of people who were living in cars, on the street or using government or social service vouchers to stay in motels. A separate one-day count was organized of homeless people who stay in overnight shelters.

In 2005, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development began requiring such homeless “census” reports from counties that seek funding. In 2009, Riverside County received $6.5 million from the federal government’s housing support program.

The scope of the homeless problem has steadily declined countywide in recent years, according to officials and reports.

The 2007 census counted 4,708 homeless men, women and children, according to a Riverside County fact sheet. Of that amount, 1,733 people were counted in shelters and the rest were counted “on the street.” Nearly 800 of those counted – about 18 percent – were under age 18. Another 150 people – 4 percent of those counted – were age 62 or older. By 2011, the countywide total had dropped to 4,321 homeless men, women and children, county officials reported. The count done Jan. 23, 2013, noted a further 31 percent drop from the previous year.

The 2013 “point in time” count drew on the efforts of more than 400 volunteers. It identified 2,978 homeless adults and children, a press release stated.

County officials attributed the steady decline to successful new projects that steer homeless residents into short- or long-term housing as well as homeless prevention, mental health, substance abuse and domestic abuse programs. County officials also credited federal funding that helped add more than 324 additional beds of “permanent supportive housing” throughout the county over a three-year period.

“Riverside County has a good story to tell about how it is ending homelessness,” Joe Colletti, Urban Initiatives founder and chief executive, said in a county press release issued in June 2013.

Temecula saw its homeless figures climb during that period, city police and officials report, and panhandling around freeway exits has become more prevalent.

The 2013 count identified 81 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Temecula. A breakdown of the 57 unsheltered adults showed that 52 percent were identified as “chronically homeless individuals.” Twenty-two percent were deemed substance abusers, 17 percent were identified as mentally ill and 10 percent were older than age 62.

The city of Riverside led the county with 571 homeless adults identified when the 2013 survey was conducted. Hemet had 126 and Lake Elsinore led the southwest quadrant with 91. Temecula was followed by Perris with 57. Wildomar had 18, followed by Menifee with 10 and Murrieta with five homeless adults identified.

The one-year agreement between the city and Community Mission of Hope calls for Temecula to rent the Pujol Street facility to the group for $1 per year. The council has the discretion to extend the contract for two additional one-year terms.

The city will also pay the annual cost, which totals about $9,000, to maintain the exterior of the historic properties and do landscaping work there. Temecula officials noted at the April 8 hearing that Temecula would bear those maintenance costs whether the buildings are used for social services programs or other purposes.

In exchange, according to the city agreement, Mission of Hope will be tasked with collecting and distributing food, hygiene items and toiletries, clothing and cold weather wear, gift cards, bus passes, motel vouchers and other assistance.

Furthermore, the group is tasked with operating the pantry and, possibly with partners, providing shelter, addiction prevention, financial management, pregnancy and childcare counseling or other related “wrap-around services.” The group must give the city an annual report, provide data to state or federal agencies and train its staff and volunteers in client management and customer service etiquette.

To accomplish that, Mission of Hope is expected to form or expand its partnerships with government agencies, businesses, faith-based organizations, civic and school groups, law enforcement agencies and healthcare and substance abuse providers.

The creation of such a comprehensive approach, as well as Treadway’s assurances that the Mission of Hope would embrace the city’s goals, struck a chord with Edwards and the rest of the council at the April 8 hearing.

“We’re going to tackle the problem,” Mayor Edwards said after the council voted to launch the program, possibly as soon as May 1. “I have high hopes.”

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