Cities, county scramble to find shelter for homeless in COVID-19 pandemic

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Temecula sheriff’s deputy Todd Johnson participates in the Riverside County Point-in-Time Homeless Count in January 2020. City and county leaders are faced with the task of finding shelter for the homeless in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

The coronavirus pandemic, while threatening those aged, pregnant or medically compromised, is seen as a serious threat to the growing homeless population in southwest Riverside County cities as well.

In response, Riverside University Health System is trying to locate the homeless population and find emergency temporary housing for them during the state’s order to “stay at home.”

The county has identified a limited number of hotels and motels to find them temporary housing with a phone call to the county public health authority at (800) 498-8847. However, the housing is only available to the aged, pregnant women or those medically compromised. Those who have contracted the virus and have breathing problems are being sent to designated hospitals for quarantine and treatment.

Cities and their outreach teams across the county are in the process of contacting as many homeless on the streets they can to refer them to the county for free temporary housing.

The response from the homeless seeking shelter has been “overwhelming” for some of the cities, which are working with the county to find enough beds to accommodate them through the coronavirus crisis.

“We haven’t begun to see the true impact of this crisis,” Robin Gilliland, homeless outreach adviser for the Temecula Community Services Department, said Thursday, March 26. She said they have received over 800 calls from the homeless and unsheltered for help since the crisis first began March 11.

“We are overwhelmed,” Nicole Dailey, assistant to the city manager of Lake Elsinore, said.

Murrieta is a little more fortunate with only about 30 homeless people coming or going in the city at a time.

“They are hunkering down, not wanting to be contacted,” Brian Ambrose, Murrieta’s senior program manager, said.

He said the city found shelter for 18 previously homeless people who had shown up in the city seeking help.

The Regional Homeless Alliance, which is made up of representatives from the cities of Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Wildomar and Menifee, is working together to help overcome the growing homeless population in the area. But, at press time, the alliance had only one outlet to send the homeless: the Temecula HELP Center, 28922 Pujol St. in Temecula. That facility is almost always filled but helps with food and necessities for the unsheltered.

Hemet and San Jacinto have a similar situation. The Valley Restart Shelter on Latham Avenue in Hemet is open to unsheltered women with children, although the shelter said they always have a waiting list.

The Salvation Army in Hemet and Perris, while able to help some homeless with limited vouchers to local motels and hotels, have no permanent or homeless center.

The coronavirus threat poses another problem for all nomadic homeless. They have no place, other than the streets or homemade shelters, to get tested, and if infected, they may continue to infect the general population.

There are many treatment centers, but those are not open to the homeless without addictions, health problems, insurance or public financial assistance.

With the possibility of the coronavirus still spreading at an exponential rate in the next few weeks, unless the public maintains its required “social distancing” protocol, hand washing and staying home, the county health system will continue scrambling to find additional beds, outside of the county hospitals that may be out of beds for COVID-19 patients by the end of April 3-10.

Carrie Harmon, the director of the Riverside Housing Authority, said they have an emergency hotel voucher program for those 65 or older, those that are pregnant and those that have recently been discharged from a medical facility and have been living outdoors without shelter or currently living in emergency shelters.

People in that category may call the hotline to ask for help in finding shelter. After that, if they qualify, an outreach team will make contact and find out the best place to shelter them. She said it was equally important to make sure they have wrap-around services. The wrap-around services include transportation, food, access to medical care and behavioral health services.

“We have had an outpouring of support from the hotel, motel community. They have been very gracious by volunteering their rooms,” Harmon said. “They are going through a severe business downturn because of the restrictions of stay at home. They are happy to have the business. And they have been very good to our staff and the folks we have placed in the hotel.”

She said since the program began the authority has placed 40 households, or 96 members, who were formerly homeless in hotels or motels. She said everyday they are contacting more homeless persons and working closely with the outreach teams that are already in place in the county and nonprofit organizations, such as the Social Work Action Group or SWAG.

Harmon said the authority has the funding to shelter 300 households, and after that, they can apply for additional funding through block grants from the state or other agency. She said she was pleased with the passage of the federal CARE Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump Friday, March 27.

“If so, we will be able to run with it,” Harmon said.

She said she thinks the authority will give out the 300 vouchers very soon, but how long the stay at home order will be in effect is still unknown.

“That is really an X-factor for use in the funding,” she said.

But, they will be working to find permanent housing for the sheltered households after it is lifted, she said.

“The goal of this program is to free up space in our emergency shelters for our homeless population. So by taking these people out of the emergency shelters, that frees up those other homeless who don’t have shelter,” Harmon said.

Gilliland said the Temecula HELP Center is open. The hours are: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Wednesdays, from noon to 4 p.m.

There is a very strict protocol to protect workers and others located at the facility, including disinfecting protocols. They now have an outdoor restroom facility with a hand washing station to help minimize exposure. SWAG is there to assist those in need with housing, substance abuse assistance and mental health. Subsequently, in partnership with Project T.O.U.C.H., SWAG and Community Mission of Hope, the Temecula HELP Center is open for collection of food and other items needed.

Project T.O.U.C.H. has negotiated financing to continue the operation of the Winter Shelter through April 30. For access to shelter, call Project T.O.U.C.H. at (951) 677-9661 or the Temecula HELP Center at (951) 240-4242. Dinner and breakfast are provided at the shelter.

Tony Ault can be reached by email at tault@reedermedia.com.