Helping the homeless: Menifee

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Members of the Menifee Police Department’s Problem Oriented Policing team and Riverside University Health System’s HHOPE Program collaborate to help the homeless in Menifee. From left, CSO Nicole Kemp, Officer Ricky Duran, Sgt. Raul Perez, Rachael Ryan, Krystal Kanaple, Roy Colbert and Christine Shield. Not pictured is Officer Michael Turrell. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

The city stresses ‘responsible compassion’

Menifee’s Community Services Director Jonathan Nicks said the city formed a taskforce comprised of various city departments, nonprofit service organizations, law enforcement, and county service agencies to work together on homelessness.

Menifee has also been working regionally with other cities in Southwest Riverside County since 2016 to address concerns and provide services. Since the Menifee Police Department began operations in July 2020, Police Chief Pat Walsh has made helping the homeless a priority.

“Starting a police department is a unique process as you do not have everything you want day one,” he said. “As we continue to build, we add capacity and programs.”

The department currently has a dedicated POP (Problem Oriented Policing) team headed by Sgt. Raul Perez that includes Officer Ricky Duran, Officer Michael Turrell and CSO (Community Service Officer) Nicole Kemp. This team works in collaboration with Riverside University Health System, Behavioral Health to direct the homeless toward services. Their HHOPE (Homeless/Housing Opportunities, Partnership & Education) Program is dedicated to outreach, making contact with clients to build rapport and encouraging them to seek resources available to them.

“We have a great relationship with their teams and when we encounter those suffering from homelessness or mental illness or both, we work with RUHS to attempt to connect them to services,” Walsh said. “We are also in the process of interviewing for a Homeless Liaison Officer. This officer will work daily with a clinician from RUHS. This pair is called the Community Behavior Assessment Team, or CBAT.”

He said RUHS is working on adding 12 more teams to Riverside County, and Menifee will be one of those teams. The CBAT team will identify those in need and build the relationships needed to gain trust. This constant engagement has proven to be very effective in moving those in need to services.

The current HHOPE team, which the city contracts with, will be expanding soon and includes Roy Colbert, Rachael Ryan, Krystal Kanaple and Behavioral Health Services Supervisor Christine Shield. Perez said the team does a great job. Sometimes finding a solution to treat a homeless person’s problem can be difficult but the workers model recovery to them and that goes a long way in building a rapport and having them be more receptive.

Peer Support Specialist Colbert said he has been incarcerated and homeless and when he shares his lived experiences with clients, they take notice because they can relate. When he completed his stay at a sober living facility, Colbert worked his way back and took a two-week peer support training class the county offers to learn what he needed to know to help others.

“We let them know that we really know what they’ve been through; what we are saying is not what we’ve learned in a book,” Colbert said. “We are modeling recovery.”

Ryan, who admits a history with substance abuse, said, “I’m an open book; I just try to be a good example.”

With an area that spans 48 square miles, Perez said Menifee PD covers many outlying areas such as Sun City, Quail Valley and Paloma Valley. All agreed the city’s main hot spot for homelessness has been Cherry Hills Plaza and it continues to be the main area of focus for the teams. He said that there is not a problem with huge homeless encampments in the area and that most homeless are individuals, although they do seem to form a sense of community with each other.

While there are no current statistics available, Nicks said the number of homeless in Menifee has gradually decreased over the past several years. Riverside County conducts a Point in Time Count of homeless individuals annually in January but the 2021 PIT was canceled due to COVID. Perez said the Menifee PD is being tasked with documenting any contacts they have with homeless individuals during the month of October. The information will be collected, and any duplicates will be weeded out.

“We are asking our officers who answer calls for service that have nothing to do with homeless situations, to fill out a card that indicates if they come into contact with a homeless individual during their shift,” Perez said. “We are going to do this for one month to get a good idea of the number of homeless here.”

Many times, the homeless will take up “residence” on private property, such as behind a store or near a closed business. Because these are private properties, the police are not allowed to clean up the area or move them out. They can only contact the property owner and let them know what is going on. The owner is responsible for having items removed and requesting the police department issue a Notice to Vacate.

“It’s not against the law to be homeless,” Perez said. “A lot of these people grew up here, so they don’t leave the area because they know it like the back of their hand.”

Duran said customers of a business are sometimes the ones who make the call, especially if activity is seen at or around a closed business or storefront. Dick Dayton, 80, lives across the street from Cherry Hills Plaza and said he sees a lot of things that take place at the center. Duran and Kemp regularly engage in conversation with Dayton and other residents who often want to thank Menifee PD for helping to clean up the community. A U.S. Navy SEAL for 14 years, Dayton has been in Menifee for about a year and thinks it’s a great place to live. He said he “notices and appreciates” all that Menifee PD does.

“Sometimes we’ll get a call for service, but the person is not receptive to what we are saying so we will follow up with them a couple of days later and find they are more keen to hear us when they are sober,” Duran said. “Some of them are just wary of police and respond better to the outreach team. Other times we are a good middleman for the HHOPE team, being able to connect them with resources.”

The underlying message from those who regularly interact with the homeless population is that many fell on hard times, and they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as drug addicts or mentally ill and treated badly.

“Not everyone was born homeless. There’s something that happens to alter the course of their life,” Kanaple said. “We are all one divorce, one job loss, one foreclosure or one bad car accident away from being homeless.”

She said each person is unique and has a story about how and why they became homeless; about what unexpected thing happened that altered the course of their life forever. Kemp agrees, “There are no two homeless people out here for the same reason but lots of folks see the (homeless) situation and make judgments.”

Many homeless individuals also have fears of ending up as victims of crime themselves, with many adopting dogs as protection and companionship. Perez said it is often difficult to get them to accept services but all you can do is offer. There is no consensus as to how long it might take to help someone take advantage of programs that are designed to help them with their specific needs. Some are ready to get off the streets within a few days of becoming homeless while others are engaged with outreach teams for up to two years before they accept services.

The amount of time spent engaging with each client also varies. Sometimes stopping to ask them if they want a bottled water will result in a refusal and the team members will move on. Other times a client will be talkative about their day or willing to listen to offers of resources.

“We meet some who are quick to seek out services and are super cooperative, maybe they just got evicted and can’t fathom living on the streets,” Duran said. “Those going through treatment take a lot longer. They may have several setbacks to beating their alcohol or drug addiction and they lose confidence, so they are caught up in this homeless cycle. HHOPE is very good at following clients and trying to keep them moving forward.”

Kemp said it truly takes an entire team to combat this problem but being able to pull from each others strengths goes a long way in helping the homeless. She said there are different levels of success, immediate ones and reaching long-term goals.

“All you have to do is plant the seed and sometimes it takes a lot of water but eventually they will bloom,” Kemp said.

Duran said success is measured in different ways and each step forward is considered a victory. Whether it is getting a name from a homeless person, having them engage in conversation, or accepting contact information for the outreach team, every bit of progress is celebrated.

“Sometimes they are just overwhelmed by the big picture and need to take things in small steps,” Duran said. “Every person is different. Some see us as family and friends; the relationship goes beyond law enforcement. We share our struggles and challenges and explain ‘this is what I did to try and stay positive, maybe it will work for you.’”

Kemp said taking that approach does make a difference, saying, “It takes a special person to have that kind of patience and the right personality skills. But if they can see beyond this badge, they know I’m still human. We work long and hard to build that rapport to where they feel safe and comfortable. It helps to look them in their eyes and not act superior to them. We just want to help them become productive members of society.”

Duran said he lets them know the team’s goal is to help them transition into a home and a job.

“We don’t want to be an agency that is just out to get rid of them – we want to help them while enforcing our laws accordingly,” Duran said. “If we want to make a difference, we can’t just slap a Band-Aid on the problem; we need to all work together to find a permanent solution. We ask them to be accountable and ask them to hold us accountable.”

Walsh said, “We have also engaged the community to ask for their help. We ask them to support those nonprofits that benefit the homeless, such as the Menifee Valley Community Cupboard, the Family Justice Center or Domestic Violence Shelter. We also have asked the public to not give money to panhandlers. This does not help the problem, it only exacerbates the problem as most use the cash for drugs and/or alcohol, which can be the root cause of their homelessness.”

Menifee Mayor Bill Zimmerman agrees, saying “In Menifee, our homeless taskforce has adopted a ‘Responsible Compassion’ approach that includes making donations and volunteering with organizations that help those who suffer from hunger or are unsheltered, while discouraging giving money directly to panhandlers. It is better to offer a hand up, than a handout.”

Kemp said the POP team tries to educate callers and residents who want to know what they can do about homelessness. She considers these interactions teachable moments that will help curtail the overall problem as she shares things concerned citizens can do and things they shouldn’t do, even though they mean well.

Walsh said. “My direction to my officers is to offer help to all those in need. If they do not want the help or refuse to change their bad behavior, the officers will address using enforcement. Drinking in public, using drugs openly, urinating, and other livability issues will not be tolerated. If they need help, we will help. If they chose to continue to act out, we will enforce.”

Nicks said the Community Services Department provided more coordination of homeless outreach when the Sheriff’s Department provided law enforcement in Menifee. “MPD has now taken the lead with direct homeless outreach, but Community Services still assists with identifying regional resources and keeping partnerships with local nonprofits,” he said.

Many community members are sympathetic and will collect hygiene and other items and drop them off at the police station for distribution to the homeless.

“That’s the human side of all of this, helping to meet the basic human needs of the homeless,” Perez said.

For more information, www.menifeepolice.org or the Menifee Homeless Taskforce at (951) 723-3880.

For those interested in learning how to become a Peer Support Specialist with RUHS, email peeremploymenttraining@ruhealth.org.

Anyone who is homeless or at risk of losing housing can contact HOMECONNECT at (800) 498-8847 or homeconnect@ruhealth.org to learn about resources in their area.

Let your generosity be a part of the solution. Do’s & Don’ts of Responsible Compassion
DO answer requests with a firm NO
DO report illegal activity by calling 9-1-1
DO treat homeless with respect
DO offer information where they can get help, dialing 2-1-1
DO volunteer your time with local organizations helping homeless
DO make donations to organizations helping homeless
DON’T encourage panhandling by giving money, food, etc.
DON’T allow anyone to camp or loiter on your property
DON’T assume you’re making a difference when you are giving; you may actually be hurting, not helping.
For more information about the Menifee Homeless Taskforce, call (951) 723-3880.