Murrieta took the lead among southwest Riverside County cities Tuesday night by opening the door for one or more emergency homeless shelters to operate through March 31 if the operators submit plans that detail how they will function.
The unanimous City Council decision came after about four hours of discussion and debate over how to tackle a growing need that had not been addressed in the region until a Murrieta church and a homeless advocacy group teamed up to open an unauthorized shelter on Jan. 17.
“This is, in many regards, an experiment, and it’s not perfect,” said City Councilman Rick Gibbs, who made the motion that declared a “shelter crisis” and set the stage for Grace of Temecula Valley Church to possibly continue hosting a fledgling shelter through the remainder of the rainy season.
The operation of that shelter and perhaps some similar church efforts, said Gibbs and other council members, could set the stage for a regional airing of homeless issues and a unified approach on how to deal with the problem in the future.
“There has to be a coalition,” Councilman Randon Lane said at one point in the discussion. “If we try to do it without the county and the surrounding cities, it will fail. We need to work together on (forming) that coalition to make it successful.”
Lane attended both meetings on the issue and was part of a group that recently toured a Vista homeless shelter to gather information.
Murrieta officials said either of a pair of regional groups – the Western Riverside Council of Governments or the newly-formed Southwest Cities Coalition – could be the best forum for a future homelessness discussion.
The city resolution identifies steps that Grace church and possibly other congregations would need to take to operate an emergency shelter. Those steps – which give City Manager Rick Dudley considerable oversight powers – include conforming to site management and operational procedures.
The council session included remarks from about 11 homeless advocates and officials from Grace church and Project TOUCH, a regional nonprofit that provides homeless advocacy and assistance services. At least two of the speakers said they are currently homeless.
Many of those speakers appealed to the council to allow Grace church to continue operating its shelter despite organizers’ failure thus far to obtain a temporary use permit.
Anne Unmacht, president and founder of Project Touch, said a loose-knit group of volunteers and churches had no intention to be “combative.” Instead they “reacted as Christians” by taking unprecedented steps to house and help those in need.
“That’s what we are – healers,” Unmacht told the council. She echoed other speakers’ remarks that the problem must be addressed regionally.
“It’s not just Murrieta’s issue, it’s a southwest issue,” she said.
Risa Maxey, whose husband is the pastor at Grace church, noted that members of her congregation and scores of other volunteers felt compelled to provide the first emergency shelter in a vast swath outside the periphery of such facilities in the Hemet, Riverside, Corona and Moreno Valley areas.
“Our intent was not to break any laws,” she said in emotion-laced remarks. “It rained and we opened the doors. If we’re wrong, we’re sorry.”
Much of the council discussion centered around the varying estimates of how many Murrieta residents are homeless and whether someone who was homeless when he or she arrived in the city can rightfully be considered a resident.
There are about 3,343 homeless county residents, according to a county “action plan” crafted for the current fiscal year. Of that figure, about 612 homeless people typically find one type of shelter or another. There are 1,003 “chronically homeless” people on any given day in the county, the report said.
Murrieta-area homeless estimates obtained from the county and area churches, nonprofits and the local school district ranged from five to 38.
“It is a very difficult number to obtain,” Mary E. Lanier, Murrieta’s community development director, said in her presentation to the council.
In her remarks, Maxey noted that a recent night at the shelter attracted 15 men and four women. They were separated by gender in different sections of the facility.
Shelters that currently operate in the Hemet, Riverside, Moreno Valley and Corona areas together house about 290 people, according to Lanier’s presentation. No homeless shelters have opened in Temecula, Lake Elsinore or other southwest cities despite years of talks.
There are about 295 housing units in those same distant communities that are used to transition homeless people into apartments or other residential arrangements.
A bid that took shape last year to set aside transitional housing units in a partially-constructed Temecula apartment complex was dropped in the face of continued neighborhood opposition and criticism.
A Temecula City Council member and at least one staff representative attended the Jan. 28 homeless discussion. No Temecula council members or upper echelon employees attended the Murrieta meeting Tuesday night or spoke during that session.
In the end, the council agreed that a Murrieta shelter could accept people from neighboring communities.
Gibbs and other council cited anecdotal examples – a massive turnout at a city foreclosure workshop, mushrooming demands at local food pantries and stashed sleeping bags sighted during canyon hikes – to try to determine the extent of area homelessness.
“Who are the homeless?” Gibbs mused aloud at one point. “They are our friends. They are our neighbors.”
He said the recession’s impacts have been felt throughout the area.
“This is continually getting worse and worse and worse,” Gibbs said.
In a candid admission, Councilman Doug McAllister told audience members he was homeless during an economic downturn in the early 1990s. He said he was not forced to live on the street, but instead alternated staying in the back of a retail store and in the homes of friends and family members.
“I know what it’s like,” he told hearing participants and onlookers. “I lost my first family over this.”