Groups of volunteers, homeless outreach groups and Riverside County sheriff’s deputies spanned out across six areas in Temecula during the 2020 Riverside County Point-in-Time Homeless Count Wednesday, Jan. 29.

According to Robin Gilliland, administrator of Temecula Homeless Outreach, 22 members of the community, 10 deputies, as well as county officials like Supervisor Chuck Washington and city officials such as Mayor James “Stew” Stewart and Councilmember Zak Schwank, trekked through hillsides, canyons, under bridges and drainage ditches at the break of dawn for the count.

The official results of the count won’t be available for several weeks.

As the groups made contact with homeless residents, they were offered help from city resources such as the Social Work Action Group.

“Most of the county cities don’t do this, I just started doing it five years ago when we did the first veteran count,” Gilliland said. “If we find a vet, we bring them back to the help center. There are resources available today for veterans. Anybody else that says, ‘yeah, I want help,’ we’re taking them back to the Help Center and having them create that relationship to start case management with SWAG.”

“It is an opportunity to reiterate the outreach that we have available to the folks that don’t want it,” Deputy Chris Ibrihim said. “They get that contact, and we continue that contact.”

The four-hour general count was to find out at how many people of all ages are homeless. The countywide census is mandated under a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant that uses count data to determine funding for homeless mitigation programs in the county.

“Homelessness is not an issue any one group or community can solve on their own,” Natalie Profant Komuro, deputy county executive officer of homelessness solutions, said in a statement. “We have to work together to get the most accurate count possible, which helps determine where we put those much-needed dollars and services to help our homeless neighbors get back on their feet.”

The count is crucial to identifying the number of children living unsheltered and finding ways to get them off the streets.

Though officials said that they believe the number of unsheltered people in Temecula is shrinking, the nature of the area is still attractive to the transient population due to the number of businesses in the area, the casino and a generous population.

Gilliland said she is seeing an increase in younger people and older population on the streets.

“A lot more younger,” she said. “I feel like the population has gotten younger and then older. They’re saying at least countywide, that over 55, that number continues to rise all the time. Every year.”

For the Homeless Outreach team deputies that led groups into areas where the homeless population likes to frequent Wednesday morning, it was an opportunity to show what they are dealing with day in and day out.

“The most troubling thing we face every day, every time we get a call, is the apparent drug use,” Ibrihim said. “And then the lack of desire to try and get off it.”

Mental health is also a huge issue in the transient community.

“We have our county Behavioral Assessment Team, and they’ve been going out helping us a lot with the mental health part of it,” Sgt. Robert Menchaca said. “And that seems to be the other portion we are dealing with, beside the substance abuse, is the mental health. We’re working on it.”

While the state focuses on affordable housing, Gilliland said the drug and mental health issues plaguing the homeless community are more pressing.

“We feel like that’s the critical piece that maybe statewide they’re forgetting about,” she said. Because when you look at all of the literature that the governor is putting out, it’s all housing-focused. We need affordable housing in California, that’s a given. But this population is not going to live in a house yet because they’re ill. They’re either mentally ill or they’re addicted to drugs. If we don’t focus on those two areas, that’s what I feel is the crux. It’s like the trifecta of things. We definitely need housing, but we also need these two other resources, and if we could focus a little bit on those issues, I feel like the longterm results would be better.”

“We keep just keep hearing that they want a house first, which is that doesn’t solve the problem,” Ibrihim said.

“Literally I say they’re suffering on the streets,” Gilliland said. “They’re curled up in a ball on a sidewalk. I mean they’re sick and they can’t deal with that. I’ve had homeless tell me directly, ‘If you were living on the streets, you’d be doing drugs too.’ I said, ‘You’re probably right.’ I’m not questioning that because it’s not an easy life, you know? But all that does is manifest itself into more mental illness, more addiction. And so it’s the cycle that has to be broken.

“I think the whole housing talk, again. It’s not that we don’t need affordable housing, but all housing does is fix the optics of homelessness. You just don’t see them anymore because they’re in a house. It doesn’t mean that these broken people aren’t still broken.”

Gilliland said the approach of “Housing First” may be losing momentum and support.

“They’re loosening up those regulations a little bit to allow communities like Temecula and Murrieta, that really probably won’t be a ‘Housing First’ model, but we wanted to still want to help,” she said.

The 2019 count identified 2,811 sheltered and unsheltered homeless adults and children across the county, a 21% increase from 2018 numbers.

To view data from last year’s count, visit www.dpss.co.riverside.ca.us/files/pit/pit-count-report-final.pdf. For more information, visit www.rivcoexchange.com.

City News Service contributed to this report.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.