Desperate Measures

Posted September 3, 2009 in Feature Story

Don and Bill don’t fit the stereotype of your average homeless men. They don’t drink or use drugs, are well-read, smart and disarmingly courteous. 


But both have been living on the streets of Riverside off and on for years.  Bill says he lost his job, and then his home, in 2006.  Don was literally a victim of bad breaks—a job injury seven years ago left him with metal pins in his neck and permanently disabled.


The two men, who asked that their last names not be used, say they haven’t a clue what can be done to end homelessness in Riverside County. If they did, they’d have tried it. But homelessness itself—that, they know. Ask them, and they’ll tell you exactly where the homeless congregate and where the best places to sleep and to find a free meal are. They’ll give you the exact dollar amount for illegal camping fines. They’ll tell you which cops have a soft spot for street people, and identify by name the ones to avoid if at all possible.  


I asked Don and Bill what they thought about Riverside County’s 2009 Homeless Count and Survey, which reported a startling decrease in the number of homeless people in the county over a two-year period. Bill, 52, smiled and shook his head.


“For every one homeless person the government gets off the street, five more come out,” he says. “The problem is getting worse, not better. We see new faces on the street almost daily out here.”


Wrong Numbers

According to the biennial homeless count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and conducted by county officials in January, Riverside County has on any given day 3,366 homeless people living within its borders. That number represents about 25 percent fewer homeless people than there were the last time the county surveyed them, in 2007, when 4,508 were counted.  In the city of Riverside, the decrease was even more dramatic—53 percent, down from 1,174 to 632. That’s the good news. 


The bad news is that no one—not even the head of the county department that conducted the count—believes those numbers to be anything but inaccurate. Hamstrung by HUD rules designed to show a steady reduction of homeless in cities receiving federal funds, the county census dramatically undercounted Riverside’s homeless citizenry.  


The flawed study is just one part on an unsettling picture that came into focus as I spent much of August trying to gauge the state of homelessness in Riverside County. What I found were county officials struggling to make sense out of senseless federal bureaucracy, homeless advocates forced by dwindling resources to make heartbreaking choice, and—caught in the middle—an increasingly desperate underclass just trying to make it through the day.


“Remarkable decline”

“The real question is what happened over that time period to lead to such a reduction,” Beverly Earl, director of San Bernardino County’s Family and Community Services Department, says of Riverside’s homeless count. “We know the homeless didn’t all get jobs and secure rentals. We know the unemployment rate here is one of the highest in the nation. The foreclosure rate is hell, and we know the majority of foreclosures involve rentals. What happened to achieve this remarkable decline?”


Earl was being rhetorical:  Like every other homeless expert I interviewed, she knows what happened: Riverside County was restricted this year by Bush-era terminology from including entire classifications of homelessness in its census. For example, “couch surfers”—families or individuals who lost their homes but were sleeping on relatives’ or friends’ couches or floors—weren’t included in the 2009 count. Neither were families who were “doubled up” in tiny apartments with other families, nor those in temporary living situations.  


Worse, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of homeless children weren’t counted in the study. Relying on HUD guidelines, census takers asked homeless parents how many children they had in their care. If the parent said “one,” that was the number listed on the count. But had the census takers phrased the question in a different way—“How many children do you have, regardless of whether they live with you?”—the study would almost certainly have revealed an untold number of children temporarily living with relatives or family friends because their homeless parents could no longer care for them.


To their credit, county officials have readily admitted since the study’s publication in June that the count needed to be taken with a grain of salt. One of those officials is county administrative services manager Ron Stewart, head of the department that ran the 2009 study.


Snapshot in time

What “I’ve said from the start is that on face value the numbers look good,” says Stewart. “However, looking at the number of homeless kids that the school districts are seeing and the number of children living with family members because their parents are homeless, that does put us back over the number we counted in ’07. What I’ve tried to say is that [the count] was a snapshot in time—if we did it the next day, we could have a different count.”


Stewart adds that he’d like to follow up the January count with an effort aimed at gleaning more accurate information. But due to the recession, he doesn’t have the funding for it. 


“This whole economic collapse has hampered my ability to go out and re-do this,” he says.


Under HUD rules, counties quantify their homeless on one day and one day only—the so-called “Point in Time” method of census taking. The method works well in quantifying relatively static populations, like seniors or prescription drug recipients. But the homeless are a migratory lot—their numbers in any given area rise and fall according to variables like weather and police activity.   


A homeless snapshot on Jan. 28, when the count was held this year and when the recorded nighttime temperature in the city of Riverside plunged to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, was bound to result in a different picture than one take on, say, May 28, when the recorded low was 60.  


Nevertheless, on Jan. 28, some 250 volunteers fanned out through the county and by the end of the day reported finding 1,323 homeless individuals in shelters and another 2,043 living on the streets. Homeless advocates were understandably skeptical.


Undercounting the vulnerable

Don Smith, supervisor of the city of Riverside’s Homeless Street Outreach Team, agrees with Stewart and Earl that HUD’s definition of what actually constitutes homelessness resulted in an undercount. Notably, he also distanced himself from the survey. 


“I was in charge of the study in 2005, and in 2007 was heavily involved in the study’s development, but in 2009, I was not involved at all,” he says. “I don’t know all the factors and approaches that were taken to get to that number. That’s a pretty dramatic reduction.”


Regardless, the count is now the official go-to document for anyone trying to gauge the county’s homeless problem—and will continue to be so for at least the next two years. As such, it affects and will continue to affect the lives of the region’s most vulnerable underclass in two critical areas: services and public perception. 


Since the numbers show a 25 percent reduction of homelessness in the county, why shouldn’t cash-strapped Sacramento—or, for that matter, cash-strapped Riverside—cut funding for homeless programs correspondingly?


Why shouldn’t Riverside’s business sector – upon which local homeless programs rely for most of its donations—also cut back on its generosity? And, since the survey suggests a homeless problem magically resolving itself, why should the public care?


Hungry for hope

It’s these kinds of questions that bedevil people like Jim Ward, a frontline soldier in the daily fight to ease homeless suffering.  Ward, a house painter and member of The Vision Plus Church in Riverside, has built an unofficial ministry around feeding the city’s hungry. Throughout the week, he gathers food donations from businesses such as Gram’s Mission Barbecue Palace and Swiss Dairies. On Thursdays, he and volunteers from Vision Plus and other churches set up tables in Fairmont Park to feed Riverside’s homeless masses. On weeks when donations are low, he pays for food out of his own pocket.


“It’s not just about feeding them,” Ward says. “It’s loving them, hugging them, letting them know that they’re loved.”


Ward started his mission three years ago with his wife, Shelba Duncan. They brought three pizzas to the park and handed slices out to “five intoxicated men with beer cans.” Since then, Ward and his people—Duncan died 1½ years ago— have served up an estimated 10,000 meals. 


“This is the best place we’ve found,” says Joey, who with her husband Ray (both declined to give their last names) and 3-year-old son Junior were busily eating a meal of fried chicken, beans and salad. “They give nourishing meals—even food for your dog if you have one. They’re coming here carrying the Word.”


“The Word” is a term you hear often Thursday evenings in the park. Deeply religious, Ward has grounded his efforts in a literal interpretation of Jesus Christ’s instructions for dealing with the less fortunate: Give to everyone who asks—not just to those you feel are deserving of gifts. Among Ward’s diners on the day I met him were convicted felons, drunks, drug addicts and the mentally ill—people that most official homeless shelters (including the city of Riverside’s Path of Life) would turn away. All were fed.


Ward’s sense of inclusiveness hasn’t set well with city and county officials, who in a January The Press-Enterprise article referred to his group as “enablers” whose energies were “misdirected” and whose efforts were a “Band-Aid approach” to the homeless problem. Last year, the city bounced the group from one section of the park to another, and, recently, cut down several shade trees around which the group congregates.  Ward knows he’ll have to relocate again soon, and he knows the pressure will continue so long as he refuses to turn away anyone.  But he also feels he’s been given contradictory orders from his government and his god. Which do you think he’ll follow?  


“Last winter, we were the only ones out here doing what we’re doing,” he says. “The city set the cops out to stop us. I won’t stop.”


Changing tactics

Unlike Ward’s operation, Circle of Hope Family Center in Corona isn’t facing intense pressure to change its ways. In fact, it’s regularly held up for praise by officials as a model of faith-based philanthropy. That’s because the shelter on West Harrison Street already has changed its ways more to City Hall’s liking. 


The shelter has its origins in a 1984 program by the 1st Baptist Church of Corona to feed the area’s homeless. Called God’s Kitchen, the program is now a collaborative effort between 32 separate religious congregations. In 1995, God’s Kitchen joined forces with the city to open Circle of Hope—at the time a full-tilt operation to provide food, shelter and services to homeless men. 


The shelter soon came under attack from angry local residents, who said homeless men were migrating to their neighborhoods and causing problems. Faced with a growing chorus of complaints from neighbors and local law enforcement—and wilting from a subsequent lack of community material support—Circle of Hope’s operators made a tactical decision in 2003 to switch from being a men’s shelter to a “family” shelter with an emphasis on women and children.  


Only single women, women with children, married couples with children and single fathers with children documented as theirs by birth certificate are allowed to sleep at the shelter. Single men can still find a meal at the facility, but have to look elsewhere for a place to sleep. 


On the day I visited Circle of Hope, about 90 women and children were registered in the facility’s transitional or emergency living programs, and not one adult male. 


Other changes were made. The shelter no longer accepts parolees, anyone with a history of violence or anyone convicted of a felony in the past three years. “Practicing” alcoholics, drug addicts or those registered as narcotics or sex offenders are not allowed. Nor are the mentally ill or people with severe medical disabilities.


Judging the homeless

But perhaps the most dramatic change at the shelter was a philosophical one. According to Bettie Schultz, board secretary for the Corona Homeless Taskforce and executive director of God’s Kitchen, Circle of Hope now looks upon homeless individuals as falling into one of two categories:  Homeless or transient. 


“Transients want a handout—they want to drink or do drugs and not better themselves,” Schultz says. “The homeless want to better themselves.”


This new viewpoint isn’t just a matter of semantics. Circle of Hope has every shelter applicant complete a rigorous 10-page entrance “interview.” Those found to be “homeless” are given a bed. Those judged “transient” are turned away. 


“When we switched to our current focus, crime in the surrounding area dropped 37 percent,” Schultz says. “It used to be that when I’d see a neighbor, I couldn’t look them in the eye because I knew they were right—we were causing problems.”


The shelter’s new focus hasn’t gone over well with some in the homeless advocacy community, or even with city officials in neighboring Riverside. Smith of the Riverside Homeless Street Outreach Team flatly says the shelter’s policies have made Corona’s male homeless problem Riverside’s problem. 


“They’re simply pushing their homeless across the border,” he says, adding that Corona isn’t alone in this practice. “On an annual basis, about half the people we’re seeing are coming from other communities.”


Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., characterized the practice of separating the “homeless” from the “transient” as immoral.


“Middle-class social workers are determining who should be voted on or off the island,” he says. “Taking only those cases you feel are the most deserving or most likely to succeed might make sense from a funding standpoint, but not in terms of addressing the needs of everybody. You can’t just help people most likely to break out of homelessness—everyone deserves a second or third chance.”


Living day-to-day

Countering the argument that Circle of Hope’s selection process is immoral is the reality that homelessness among families with children is at an all-time high, that services for homeless families in the IE are woefully inadequate, and that 84 percent of homeless families in America are headed by single moms, according to a 2007 Congressional report. Schultz would argue to her critics that the shelter is simply playing the best hand it can with the cards it’s been dealt.


She might also argue that the shelter, which operates on a $300,000 annual budget, is in fact playing a very good hand.  A visit to Circle of Hope reveals a clean, well-maintained facility where the clients—about 65 percent of who are children—seem remarkably happy and well nourished for their economic predicaments. Moreover, the mothers I spoke with appeared full of hope and directed by clearly defined goals. 


Alycia Szymanski, 27, has been living at the shelter with her 10-year-old son Jacob and 4-year-old daughter Annabella for six months since breaking away from an abusive husband. 


“My goal is to get into a safe place, secure a restraining order and finalize my divorce and improve my job skills,” she says, adding that she’s now working part time at a clothing store. “I’m taking self-esteem classes, and have learned a lot about myself and how to be a parent.” 


Working shelter residents give 10 percent of the income to Circle of Hope. An additional 35 percent is put in a mandatory savings account to help the residents save up for their own place. The residents meet with social-services workers, and are tasked with helping run the shelter’s day-to-day operations. 


But like many homeless nonprofits these days, the shelter is struggling from state budget cuts and a precipitous drop in private donations. Shelter administrator Leonard Raught says he hasn’t a single contribution from the business community in more than a year. The shelter had previously received about 25 percent of its donations from businesses. 


Raught says he should be able to keep shelter’s doors open this year, but can’t speak for the next.


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