Temecula’s Homeless Outreach Team encouraged by progress

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The Temecula Homeless Outreach Team report their arrest and outreach numbers in working to manage the homeless population in the city during a conference call with the Valley News. Valley News/Courtesy photo

It’s popular on social media for residents to complain about the perceived lack of effort local law enforcement is putting into handling the homeless crisis in southwest Riverside County.

Temecula’s Homeless Outreach Team understands the frustration that residents feel when a crime is committed or they encounter a homeless resident of the city that makes them feel unsafe.

That’s why the team reached out to the Valley News to talk about the progress they are making and why they are every day working to improve on the last.

During a conference call with Sgt. Robert Menchaca, Sgt. Rick Donoho and Robin Gilliland, the Homeless Outreach administrator for Temecula, they said they are encouraged by the progress they have made in 2019.

“We’ve had 478 outreach attempts,” Menchaca said. “And out of the 478 – this is spending 30 minutes or more with them trying to get them help and get them wherever they need to go, rehab or wherever – we were able to get 85 of them to assistance. We placed them to rehab facilities, temporary housing or they were reunited, reconnected with family either here or out of state.”

That is 85 wins in the eyes of the team.

“When they were reconnected, we didn’t just send them there,” Menchaca said. “We contacted the family, made them aware of what their situation is, their desire to get off the street, their desire to go to rehab facilities or whatever it is. And then the family took it upon themselves to bring them home. Some of these families haven’t talked to their kids in 2-5 years, and they were very happy to have them come back and finally make the choice to take rehab, go home and do rehab or some kind of program to get them off the street.”

In addition, the department has been effective in enforcing its zero tolerance policy toward crime.

As of Wednesday, Dec. 18, the four-person HOT team has made 640 arrests, averaging 55 per month, and includes crimes such as trespassing, misdemeanor and felony warrants, thefts, narcotics violations, assaults, burglaries and robberies.

Those numbers don’t include the rest of the department; those numbers only reflect the efforts of the HOT team over the past year.

“And this isn’t just homeless,” Menchaca said. “This is the transients and everybody else that’s out there. And this was a combined effort that the HOT team alone has done.”

But more than the arrests, the team wanted to focus on the successes they have enjoyed over the year, including the success story that involved a young mother who has turned her life around.

“She was seven months pregnant on the street, and she was homeless for about 18 months,” Donoho said. “We encountered her in 2018 and on Jan. 19, we were able to enroll her into a women’s treatment center in Riverside. So, that was the beginning; actually, it began before that because of our constant contact with her and talking to her. Finally, one night, she had enough and she approached us, and we, we spent time with her. We met the next day, and we were able to get her into this treatment center. She was doing well, and we’d encourage her and she’s had some bad days and some good days. She ended up leaving the facility, and we didn’t know about it.”

The HOT team did what they do best – continue to establish contact with the young lady and encourage her to keep trying.

“At that point, we encouraged her to get back in there,” Donoho said. “We kept up with it and then she re-enrolled herself in and then she finished that program.”

From there, she was placed into Rancho Damacitas in Temecula Wine Country where she received help with housing, transportation, obtaining a job and got help with day care.

“She’s going through that program, and she was able to get a job,” Donoho said. “She got her own car, and she’s actually doing really, really well. Now she wants a better job. She continues to do well and from when she was arrested and living on the streets to where she is now, and it’s just night and day.”

That balance between enforcement and compassionate aid is what the team thinks is so effective in the community.

“What we do is very balanced and it’s not really, it’s not super law enforcement heavy, but you know, it’s a pretty balanced approach,” Gilliland said. ”I have just recently given a presentation to our council subcommittee on a strategic model that we’re going to roll out next year. And for better or for worse, the city of Temecula is just sort of on the forefront of this. The region follows what we’re doing; the county follows a lot of what we’re doing.”

If there’s one thing that irritates the average resident when it comes to how law enforcement is dealing with the homeless crisis here in southwest Riverside County, it is being reminded that being homeless is not a crime.

The team wants to remind the public that they can’t indiscriminately run around town rounding up people they consider to be homeless just so residents feel as though they are doing their job in protecting the public.

“The main thing we need from the residents is when something happens they need to report it because what happens is they end up thinking they’re reporting it to the NextDoor app or something,” Donoho said. “Somebody’s bike is stolen, and by the time six neighbors find out about it, it was a high-speed chase through their neighborhood. And a car was crashed into a house when that never even happened.”

Donoho said that when crimes are not reported directly to law enforcement, misinformation gets spread, but more importantly, there’s no record of the crime even being committed.

“The homeless do steal stuff,” Donoho said. “They go into businesses. They have receipts that they turn in and they end up stealing a lot of stuff, but sometimes they get blamed for stuff that they didn’t even do and the crimes are committed by people the HOT team has never seen.”

According to Donoho, they have a good record of individuals living on the streets in Temecula and nearby communities, and when crimes are committed, they need to be reported in order to make an arrest when necessary.

“The main thing is for the residents to report any theft or any criminal activity,” Donoho said. “A lot of times people will give us information that there’s a homeless guy walking down the street. It’s not a crime to be homeless. But what we like to see is, ‘Hey, there’s an encampment. It looks like there’s a tent on this corner or in the weeds down here in the creek down here.’ It might take a couple of days by the time we do our schedule and get out there, but we can address that issue and try and get those people out of the creek because it was illegal to live in the creek.”

It also affords deputies the opportunity to connect the offending subjects with services they can offer.

“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Gilliland said. “And I tell people, reporting on Facebook is not reporting. If you don’t tell us then it didn’t happen because we can’t respond to it, but more importantly understanding that part of the reason that we don’t send out a ton of information about what we’re doing is we absolutely do not want to become some sort of magnet.

“Yes, we’re dedicating a lot of city resources to this socioeconomic challenge, but we are not going to take care of everybody’s problems,” she said. “We want to take care of those that live here, people that were in high school here. That’s sort of our stance is we really want to take care of our residents that are struggling – not take care of the whole county.”

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part story about how Temecula’s Homeless Outreach Team is working to deal with the homeless crisis in the city.

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