SWAG making big strides for Lake Elsinore’s homeless

Robert "Bob" Magee

Two years ago, while the majority of California’s elected leaders were busy burying their heads in the sand or searching for ways to raise your taxes to combat Homelessness, one city did something about it. Lake Elsinore created a Homeless Task Force in summer 2017 that included elected members of the city council, the sheriff’s department, code enforcement, Riverside County, nonprofit community, business community and the Social Work Action Group. The Task Force quickly agreed that our Valley wanted to help those in need but would not enable anyone to break the law.

Six months later, the city entered into an agreement with the newly established nonprofit, SWAG, to provide street level public outreach services for the homeless community in Lake Elsinore. The group worked closely with law enforcement, business owners, property owners, code enforcement and county social services. The city held public outreach meetings to inform its citizens and businesses to report illegal behavior and not to enable it through donating to panhandlers. The city and its people began to adapt and embrace a culture of “Responsible Compassion: A hand up not a hand out.”

The city performs approximately two homeless camp cleanups a week in partnership with law enforcement, which yield on average 50 tons of trash and debris that must be removed from public and private property and disposed of in the local landfill. Some call it a kind of concierge service for the urban outdoorsman who have chosen this lifestyle. But, Lake Elsinore continues this practices as a matter of public health and to demonstrate the pride we have in our community.

In the two years that Lake Elsinore has partnered with SWAG, it has transitioned 101 people out of homelessness. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ mayor bragged recently about placing 40 individuals in permanent housing, following his $1 billion tax increase on his constituents. Clearly, in Lake Elsinore, we are both more fiscally prudent and effective.

In March, Lake Elsinore joined with its partners, Wildomar and Riverside County to apply for state funding through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, and our group was awarded $1.5 million. Not only were we the only collaborative group in Riverside County to win an award, but we were amongst the only cities to apply. These funds are now available, and Lake Elsinore has already taken steps to put the grant money to good use by hiring a new community services officer, a housing and outreach specialist and expanding its professional services agreement with SWAG.

SWAG will now have the resources to hire a licensed therapist, a licensed physician, and create a housing database for placement of their clients. The process is simple, yet time consuming and emotionally draining; housing first, drug treatment and behavioral health next, all while providing an emotional and physical bridge back to normalcy.

So why haven’t other jurisdictions adopted this model? Because it’s hard. While government must play a role in the homeless crisis, nonprofit groups like SWAG have a greater degree of freedom to move within the community unencumbered by union contracts, livable wage restrictions or piles of mindless bureaucratic paperwork. The system seems to work best when government supports rather than controls the process. But it starts with strong leadership along with the support of an engaged constituency. Thankfully in Lake Elsinore, we have both.

While we cannot end homelessness, we can offer hope and a meaningful pathway out of despair. It would be uncivilized to turn our backs on our fellow citizens or simply enable them to continue to live on the fringes of society without a sincere effort to address their issues, weather that is drug addition, domestic violence, mental health or physical disabilities. A civilized society has a moral obligation to take care of its most vulnerable. And Lake Elsinore has shown that you don’t need a billion dollar tax increase to make that happen.