Spend up to $50 million on new libraries or make a larger commitment to tackling a homelessness problem that has been described as a “crisis” by many working on the homeless issue in our communities?
Minutes after listening to Deputy County Executive Officer – Homelessness Solutions Natalie Komuro describe a more than 20% increase in homelessness countywide according to the Riverside County 2019 Point-In-Time Count, the supervisors approved up to $50 million in bond issuance to pay for the construction of three new libraries in Riverside County.
My immediate reaction to the congratulating and praising of the library proposal’s final approval was – “Ummm, before dedicating all that money to new libraries, can we go back and talk about that homeless thing again?”
I realize it may be unfair to compare the two issues as an “either-or” societal issue, and I don’t envy the position of the supervisors in dealing with and deciding how to handle the thousands of funding propositions and society-driven issues yearly.
But I couldn’t help but wonder if that $50 million could be better used in dealing with the 2,811 total sheltered and unsheltered homeless human beings countywide.
Did I mention that population total is an increase of more than 20% over last year?
In the board responses to the Point-In-Time Count report, which the board voted unanimously to receive and file, District 1 supervisor and board Chairman Kevin Jeffries expressed real concern over the growing issue.
The supervisor said, in his opinion, the three groups of homeless: those who want assistance, those who are hesitant but can be convinced to accept assistance, and those “who don’t trust anybody because they have serious mental health or drug addiction problems,” as reported by City News Service.
“They are, in my opinion, causing real significant problems in our communities,” Jeffries said. “Residents are coming unhinged over this. You have people breaking into garages, vehicles, mailboxes, living under trees and not responding to our assistance.”
“In the near term, I do think the numbers could get worse, but in the long run, we’re going to be getting ourselves on track and getting our house in order, we will start to see an impact,” Komuro said. “But it’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Spend any amount of time in neighborhood crime watch social media and app sites will soon find out that the homeless issue is a major, much-discussed issue with residents.
Talk to anyone working with local homeless outreach teams, shelters, food banks and agencies, and you will soon understand how dire the problem is.
The county already suffers from a lack of shelter space, and organizations like Project T.O.U.C.H. in southwest Riverside County are stretched to their limits.
According to the PIT Count, the number of veterans living on the streets increased by 8%, the number of youth ages 18-24 increased by 2%, more children than ever are living on the streets, the chronically homeless population has increased by 88% and the elderly from ages 62 and older that are currently homeless increased by 16%.
The county agency admits those numbers may be low and cites issues with the number of volunteers who participated in the January survey and many other contributing factors as reasons to expect that the homeless population is even higher than reported.
According to the City News Service report, the county received $10.1 million from HUD in support of homeless mitigation programs, which include transitional housing, job training and behavioral health resources. The state disbursed $11 million and the California Homeless Emergency Aid Program and the California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program have already guaranteed the county $10.02 million in assistance this year.
Imagine what another $50 million could provide in aid like temporary and transitional shelters, mental health assistance and support for city agencies and nonprofit organizations already doing incredible work on the streets.
Now, I realize that libraries are important to our communities. They provide safe, low-cost spaces for members of the community to educate and entertain. They provide services that are crucial to spreading vital knowledge to residents young and old.
Let me be clear, I am not knocking libraries.
District 3 Supervisor Chuck Washington said the approval of the library funding proposal – which will create new libraries in Menifee and French Valley – was a “proud moment” for him and who could argue?
“Some people have told me that libraries are a thing of the past,” Washington said. “‘We have the internet now.’ Well, we know the internet offers us information, and some not very positive things, too. But libraries always seem to be very positive places.”
Agreed, but when faced with the significant impacts a growing homeless population can have on our cities, neighborhoods and communities – combined with the basic societal importance of aiding and caring for our fellow human beings – is that $50 million well spent?
I have a hard time justifying the supervisors’ vote to approve millions for libraries until they have allocated adequate resources to deal with the homeless crisis that is right in front of their faces.
“These are going to be problems and a crisis that we’re going to have to be paying attention to moving forward whether they are in the city or in the county,” Komuro said.
And they aren’t going to be solved by funding library passion projects.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.