CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

Massive worldwide demonstrations took place yesterday, Sept. 20, to demand meaningful governmental responses to the climate crisis—including a rally in Palm Desert.

According to media reports, some 2,500 events were scheduled in more than 150 countries on all seven continents. In New York City alone, an estimated crowd of 250,000 gathered in protest.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the Climate Reality Project of Riverside County sponsored a rally and demonstration that began around 3:30 p.m. in the offices of U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, near the intersection of Washington Street and Fred Waring Drive in Palm Desert. After a few short speeches, the crowd of around 150 people—many carrying signs—moved onto the sidewalks surrounding the intersection. The mood was one of determination—to bring real solutions to this existential threat, and celebration—of the diverse community of young students, adults and seniors that joined together to send this message.

Richard Noble, chair of the Climate Reality Project of Riverside County, welcomed the crowd.

“What an amazing day,” he said. “Globally, the kids are standing up, and the adults are meeting them halfway—and we are coming together to face the climate crisis.

“About six months ago, I spoke before the Sustainability Commission of the Palm Springs City Council after having been trained by Al Gore. What Vice President Al Gore had said was that we have the solutions (right here) in windmills, solar and hydropower. These are all renewable energies that are carbon-free. (As a result), the City Council of Palm Springs unanimously called for Palm Springs to go 100 percent carbon-free by 2020. That’s a huge deal. But, unfortunately, Palm Desert and Cathedral City backed out of the agreement. Now, some of (their reticence) might have to do with money. But we have to ask ourselves: Do we want our planet? Or, do we mind paying a few extra dollars on a renewable-energy utility bill? If it’s going to save our lives and our planet, I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars.”

“This is not a drill. We are in a climate emergency. I invited every member of the City Council of Palm Springs to come out and join us today. Are you here?”

A silence in the crowd turned to groans. “Get them out here!” Noble said.

Renaissance Alexandre, a student leader at the University of California, Riverside, spoke next.

“It is also important to hold the systems accountable for the damage that they’re doing, which makes up the majority of climate change,” Alexandre said. “Those are the military industrial complex, the corporations and the travel industry. … I’m a feminist. I’m here for my native sisters, my two-spirited siblings and everyone in between, because we are all on this planet together. The Amazon happens to be in Brazil, but it is all our air and all our responsibility to help each other.”

A more local view was expressed by Priscilla, mother to 4-month old Melanie.

“We came out today for my daughter’s future, and living out here in the Coachella Valley and feeling the temperature rising, and seeing all the devastation that’s going on around the world, it’s really scary,” Priscilla said. “We want her to have a good future, so I’ve got to do something about it. She obviously doesn’t have a voice, so I’ve got to be the one to do it.”

Scroll down to see some photos from the rally.

It was a rude awakening to examine the murky underworld of human trafficking while working on this story about the Second Annual Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS). The event will take place Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage.

According to a July piece at BusinessInsider.com: “The United States, along with Mexico and the Philippines, was ranked one of the world's worst places for human trafficking in 2018. In the U.S., there is no official number of human-trafficking victims, but estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands. … The most human-trafficking cases have been reported in California, Texas and Florida, but every state in the U.S. has reports of human trafficking. … More than 300,000 young people in the U.S. are considered ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation.”

A large percentage of individuals who are trafficked wind up as sexual slaves—because selling sex so lucrative. A July article in USA Today noted: “Annual profits per victim were highest in developed countries, because traffickers can charge more for sex acts. The International Labour Organization estimates annual rates of around $80,000 per victim in developed countries. … In 2018, one in seven reported runways was likely (to become) a victim of child sex trafficking. … The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report found the Department of Justice opened significantly fewer human-trafficking investigations in 2018 compared to 2017, dropping from 783 to 657. It also reported significantly fewer prosecutions: 230, down from 282. Victims are still arrested for crimes they were forced to commit by traffickers.”

Against this disturbing backdrop, the Independent spoke recently with Winette Brenner, the program director at CVSAS.

“Our goal is to provide supportive services regardless of your race or socioeconomic stance. All of our services are free of charge,” Brenner said. “We have a 24/7 hotline, and we provide individual counseling, advocacy accompaniment, community resources and referral services. It’s any help that you (the victim) need as far as we can provide within our scope of (involvement in responding to) sexual assault, domestic violence or human trafficking. That’s what we’re here for—and we’re here for the victim and the significant other and the family members, because when a crime is committed, it doesn’t only happen to the victim; it affects the whole family as a unit.”

Sexual-assault victims who contact CVSAS either at the La Quinta office or via the around-the-clock hotline (800-656-4673) are provided with an advocate to accompany them to Eisenhower Medical Center to meet with members of a Sexual Assault Response Team, including a forensic nurse (who would perform an exam and gather evidence of the assault) and a member of local law enforcement.

Brenner said that in July, 18 victims sought CVSAS support; in August, 14 victims did. Those numbers are higher than average—but far from unusual.

“The number of victims each month can vary from a low of around seven to a high of around 16 to 18,” Brenner said. “The fall and winter months tend to be less active, but from March through September, the numbers go higher.”

CVSAS also offers one-on-one and group counseling, and visits schools with presentations on prevention, intervention, how to recognize healthy/unhealthy relationships, and red-flag warning signs of abusive behaviors.

“The presentations are for all school ages, and can include parents, because it’s important for parents to know the signs of their child being in trouble,” Brenner said.

The Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference is important, Brenner said, because human trafficking is not only a global problem—it takes place locally, too.

“Our goal is to bring awareness and knowledge about what’s going on in our own backyard,” Brenner said. “We want people to be able to recognize what human trafficking is, and recognize the number of layers that human trafficking represents. Our theme this year is ‘Educate to Eradicate.’ It’s so important that we educate to end it. … It’s going to take all of us.

“We work extremely hard to stage fundraisers to raise the money to keep this conference free of charge for the public. It’s really important to us to get as many people as possible to come and get this information.”

One of those fundraising events is slated for this Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Mary Pickford is D’Place theater in Cathedral City. It’s a special screening of the film Trafficked starring Ashley Judd, Sean Patrick Flanery, Anne Archer and Patrick Duffy, among others.

“It’s a red-carpet event, and one of the film’s producers, Conroy Kanter, of KK Ranch Productions, is going to be there to conduct a Q&A after the showing,” Brenner said.

Tickets are $12, and the screening starts at 6 p.m.

Brenner said the conference will feature powerful presentations.

“One of our speakers represents an agency called Destiny Rescue that works with human trafficking in Cambodia and in the Los Angeles area,” she said. “They will be speaking about how human trafficking evolves and how people get trapped in it. Another speaker will talk about the social impact and advancement of human trafficking, as well as how active bystanders can make a difference.

“We’ll have a session about social media and dating apps, talking about how people get involved (through those means) so easily in human trafficking. … Another of our speakers will be a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Anti-Human-Trafficking Task Force, who will give a talk on ‘Human Trafficking 101’ and give us tips we need to know.

“Our keynote speaker this year is the executive director of an agency named Saving Innocence. He’s a very powerful speaker about human trafficking, the different layers of it and what it looks like, and what to do when you see it. We’ll also have Tika Thornton, who is a survivor of human trafficking at a very young age in the L.A. area. Currently, she works for a sex-trafficking task force out of Long Beach. Lastly, a presenter from Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Palm Desert will show some self-defense (tactics) so that if you’re in a (threatening) situation, you could use these tips to get yourself out of that situation.”

I asked Brenner for an example of how a local resident might unwittingly come in contact with a human-trafficking victim.

“When you see a child in front of a bank selling candy, as innocent as that seems,” she said. “If you speak to that child, you may find out that, even though they are in the La Quinta area, they are from Rancho Cucamonga or San Bernardino. If you ask questions like, ‘Where are your parents? Why are you out here by yourself?’ they totally scramble to come up with answers, because they’ve also been groomed. You can be guaranteed that somewhere in the parking lot, there’s someone watching that child, and if you talk for too long, that’s a red flag, and they’re going to run.”

Brenner said human trafficking is an issue that affects the entire community.

“We have the border right here,” she said. “Straight down Interstate 10, you have all of these truck stops and places where kids can be taken. So we just want parents to be aware and gain more knowledge—and it’s not going to cost you anything except a little bit of time.”

The Second Annual Anti-Human Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services, takes place at 8 a.m., Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa, 71333 Dinah Shore Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Admission is free. To reserve a spot, call 760-568-9071, or visit www.eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-anti-human-trafficking-conference-tickets-71752641081. Seating is limited, but if space is available on the day of the conference, walk-up guests will be accommodated.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Palm Springs residents living in the newly drawn Districts 1, 2 and 3 will head to the polls to elect three City Council members.

These elections are the first step in the city’s transition from at-large to district-based representation, to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. The changeover will be complete after the November 2020 election of council members in Districts 4 and 5. (To see the newly drawn districts, visit www.palmspringsca.gov/government/city-clerk/election-general-municipal-election.)

Another change: The city will no longer have a directly elected mayor; instead, Palm Springs will join most other valley cities in designating a councilmember as mayor for a year on a rotating basis.

The Independent recently reached out to the four candidates running for the new District 1 seat. Grace Garner, Les Young and Scott Myer all spoke with us at length; Michael Shogren did not get back to us after repeated attempts to reach him by both phone and email.

Here are their complete answers, edited only slightly for style and clarity, presented in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.


Les Young, Retired Banker, 68 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

I would say that’s homelessness. I think the City Council has done a remarkable job in moving the needle on homelessness. I think that moving to the “housing first” model is an absolute requirement. I think it’s been proven time and again throughout the country, and so I think that migrating in that direction has been very beneficial. Unfortunately right now, most of that solution seems to be (happening) in the east valley, and we need to bring that solution into the west valley. It’s pretty imperative that we do something within those confines. It’s not easy for a homeless person to get transported over to that area in the east.

I’ve been assigned to the homeless task force, because I sit as a commissioner on the Parks and Recreation (Commission). Since homelessness very much impacts our parks, for the last 2 1/2 to 3 years, I’ve sat on that committee. One of the things that I think we do very effectively is (address) what I consider to be low-hanging fruit. We have people who are near homeless or just borderline homeless, and we have plenty of services, not just within the city, but services like Mizell (Senior Center) and Jewish Family Services who do assist people with things like fixing a broken air conditioner to help avoid their becoming homeless. Then there’s the next third, people who have been homeless for awhile, but who would do anything to be facilitated within housing. They are very much interested in making that move. … The last third, which I don’t feel that we’ve been particularly successful (in aiding), are people who are using drugs, or are mentally incapacitated. In the corporate world, when you work on a rock—and I consider this problem to be a rock—you bring in people who really analyze and come up with solutions. You don’t start at one end of the rock and works toward the other end, or start with the most difficult and work toward the easier stuff; you put elements (in place) on each pile to work it down. I think we’ve worked on what I would call the “low-hanging fruit” very effectively. Now we need to focus more on the last third; I think it’s extremely important to try and figure that out.

I don’t think you’ll ever “solve” homelessness. In fact, today, homelessness is so different throughout the United States than it was 10 to 15 years ago. In my corporate life, when I traveled, homelessness wasn’t something that you experienced very often when going to other cities. Whether it was just kept out of sight, I don’t know, but today, if you travel to Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or New York, there are clearly homeless communities. It is a new today for us, so I would love to focus on this and try to wrap a couple of solutions around it. This is an issue that, since senior council members have already been working on it, I wouldn’t get to work on in my first year as a newly elected councilmember. But I can always be building the history, and thinking about things moving forward, and this is one (issue) for me that is very large.

Since homelessness was the topic of our second planned question, would you like to talk about your next-most-important issue?

It’s affordable housing. You know, homelessness and affordable housing are sometimes interchangeable, and sometimes they are one and the same thing. As for affordable housing here, we are sorely behind in developing apartment living at a reasonable cost. But I’d like us to look at sweat-equity development of purchasable homes. I’d like to see a young family be able to put in some sweat equity, and also a reasonable amount of money, and be able to get a mortgage and create the American dream, which is to have a home you own and can build equity in. If you live in it for 10 to 15 years, I don’t feel that it should be sold at a less than market rate because you got it as an affordable house. That’s part of the American dream. If the price of the area goes up, then you benefit from that, and that’s how you move on.

I’m really hoping that at some point in time, we’ll be building out multiple kinds of homes. … We live directly across from Coyote Run 1 and 2, which are beautiful examples of well-maintained properties. I look across at these properties and just marvel that they are low-income housing, because they are beautifully maintained on the outside. I mean, these are people who decorate their homes at Christmas and various holidays, just like we do. I will tell you that it’s an honor to live across from this community. To me, it’s a great example of what affordable housing can look like. I worry a little bit about “NIMBY-ism,” the people who say, “Not in my backyard.” But I’m sorry, if you look at (Coyote Run), there’s nothing wrong with that community. So, I’m very supportive of things that (the) Coachella Valley Housing (Coalition) has achieved. I know there’s another opportunity coming up that won’t be in my district, but will be right across from my district at Indian (Canyon Drive) and San Rafael. I think there are about 60 homes currently planned to be built, which will be remarkable. But I think we’re at least a couple of hundred homes behind where we should be, even in the affordable rentals area.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

I think the city has done a great job of bringing the businesses in and attempting to set up the requirements for it. But one thing that I’m concerned about is that in District 1, both at the north end and south end, there are grow and manufacturing facilities that are emitting odors, and they are abutting residential areas, so I’ve got a concern about that. I think that we are building a new process that will actually benefit somebody who is going into the business if they are a greater distance from housing. I don’t know if I’ve coined this or not, but I call the I-10 the ‘Cannabis Corridor’ for us in Palm Springs, and Palm Springs (extends northward) slightly past the I-10, so on both sides of the 10 freeway, there are opportunities for warehouses that would be built specifically for grow and manufacturing so that they could more tightly control the odors—and if any odors did slip out in that area, it wouldn’t be close enough to either Desert Hot Springs or Palm Springs to be impacting people.

I’ll tell you that what’s unfortunate is that these are things that are happening in commercial areas that essentially abut less-costly housing—so it is against Desert Highland, and it is up against the Demuth Park area. While they’re both wonderful areas, it seems they are being imposed upon by these (cannabis) facilities. I don’t want to see these facilities not be here; in fact, I love that they are in District 1. But I’d like to see them appropriately placed in (areas) that do not impact our citizens.

I don’t have major concerns about the lounges or the retail outlets, but I do hope that they are equitably spaced for the benefit of both those who are in the business as well as those who are purchasing the products throughout the city. I think there might be a few variances that are being offered, but I don’t really have concerns about that aspect of how we’re doing things.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

I sit as the president of the Police Advisory Board, so I do have access to data relative to crimes both through that role and through the ONE-PS monthly meetings, and the mainstream meetings that I attend. I think our police are doing a remarkable job. I think they are highly regarded for the work they do in the city. I think things are very much under control. I’m a very strong opponent to the idea of outsourcing that (policing) capability. I’ve been asked twice in the last month if I could support outsourcing the police department, and my answer was, “Absolutely, I could not.” I’ve lived in multiple cities in our country—Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City—and a few cities outside of our country, and I feel that we have the best police chief that I have ever been exposed to. It’s not just because I sit on an advisory board, but I’ve watched things happen in the last 2 1/2 years in this community that I think many people would have failed (in addressing). This man leads beautifully, and he leads a very effective group. He manages people extremely well, and he leads by example, which I think is one of the most important things. He doesn’t have rules for others that he doesn’t follow himself, so I highly respect him, and I highly respect both our police and fire facilities here in Palm Springs. I think they’re both remarkable, and their leadership is (as well).

So you have no concerns about the level of crime or type of crime that has taken place within Palm Springs in recent years?

I will tell you, having seen closely the impacts of crime, our chief and the force here work to teach people how to avoid crime. So much of the crime we experience today has to do with unlocked doors—garage doors that are left open a few inches because it’s so hot here, and then not locking the kitchen door to the garage. In one of the reports that I read, somebody had left $5,000 in cash and a computer and a purse or a briefcase in view in their car. I marvel that we test things that way. In my working world, I had a laptop, and so often, I had to carry that laptop into a restaurant with me on the way home from work. It had private and confidential information on it, and although it was secured with encryption and access codes, if it were stolen, it would have been reported as a banker’s access to client data. Even to this day, as I’m the president of my HOA, I have books that I carry to the meetings, and if somebody says, “Hey … let’s go out to dinner,” before I join them, I have to go home and put the books away in a safe place.

One of the other things I do worry about is that often times, the laws have softened on some crime to make it difficult for police officers to assist by getting people off the street who are perpetrating crimes. But some of the crime goes back to homelessness. I’ve got to tell you that if you’ve had a hungry day, and there isn’t any resource for you (to obtain a meal), you might actually pick up a half gallon of milk and stick in your pocket to help feed your family. So you walk two sides of the street on that one.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

I’m excited about it if it happens. I will tell you, a little selfishly, that I’m a Chicagoan, and most of my life, I lived in Chicago. To see a hockey team in my home town after having moved here with my husband from San Francisco, where we had season tickets to the Giants and the 49ers, would be great. … Although my husband is a sports fan, he isn’t much of a hockey fan. But after going to a couple games, he’ll realize what a great sport it is.

Now, do I worry about some of the aspects such as traffic and transportation—I do somewhat, But I have a great deal of respect for the tribe, and I believe that if this is something that they’re doing, then they’re not going to have 10,000 cars at an event blocking up the streets. That’s not their style. They will come up with plans. I don’t know what they are, and they’re not disclosing them yet, but I have total faith in the tribe. I think about things that could help: Could we have a large parking lot close to the I-10, with transportation into the event? That’s possible.

Also, my hope would be that people who come for an event may actually stay for few days to enjoy our restaurants, hotels and the beauty of our city and the mountain. There’s a piece of me that thinks some people will be parked in a hotel five hours before the event, having a bite of dinner and then going over to see that event. I know there will be hockey, and concerts and other types of broad entertainment, and I hope that people will spend the night in their hotel, drive safely and enjoy our city. So, I’m not worried about it. I’m actually anticipating that it will get done quickly, like the garage that they built—and look at the beautiful cultural center that they’re doing.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

I don’t think any city can be ready for (a recession). But if there’s a city that’s prepped for it, Palm Springs has done a remarkable job. Again, our City Council has set things up very effectively. Now, personally, I think that there are some areas where we have not done the work we need to do relative to the infrastructure of this city. I’m somebody who is a bit worried about our buildings and whether or not they can survive another 10 to 20 years without investment. Again, I sit as chair of Parks and Recreation, so I spent a lot of time in the James O. Jessie Community Center, and the Demuth Park pavilion and leisure center—and some of those buildings are suffering from age. They are beautifully maintained by our maintenance people, but everything gets old over a period of time. So, I do worry about that a little.

I think that City Hall has had a little bit of a structural facelift over the last four years, and we don’t see buckets (catching the leaks) when it rains anymore. But I do feel that we need to do some work. So while we’re sensitive to keeping reserves well managed, and working on our retirement (benefits) issue, we also need to set aside funds to address our infrastructure issues. For instance, our parks, while in beautiful shape, have restrooms that are in need of some serious work. The commission did a report for (City Manager David) Ready, as he requested, and he’s looking to fund our request to improve the bathrooms. Some need to be torn down and replaced, but some are in historically significant facilities and cannot be torn down, but could be re-gentrified by installing tiles and floors that can withstand stronger washings, and make sure those are done on a regular basis.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

I love walking the entire length of the city. You know, it’s not New York City, and it’s not Chicago, but it has its own charm. Actually, today is Michael’s and my 28th anniversary, and 11th wedding anniversary, so we’re going to have dinner at Spencer’s, which is a place that we very much enjoy. We’ll be eating on their patio which is where a lot of people in the community are.

We have some fabulous restaurants in town. Coming from San Francisco, we were both a little nervous about arriving in Palm Springs and realizing that the food would probably not be what we were used to in San Francisco. Well, we were excited to find out that we were so wrong. There are so many different kinds of food and food opportunities here, and new ones coming in that are wonderful. Wabi Sabi (Japan Living) is doing some pop-ups in places. We really do have very creative people who have settled here over the years and continue to settle here. So, it is nice, and there are some wonderful spots as you walk down Palm Canyon or Indian Canyon, like stores you can go into to shop, and gelato on a warm night is great.

I just marvel that the Thursday night VillageFest street fair happens 51 weeks of the year, weather allowing—and to see the people who come to sell their wares, and the people who come repeatedly to visit that five-to-six-block area is remarkable. I get to work at the “Ask the Chief” booth that (Police) Chief (Bryan) Reyes does for the Police Advisory Board. He comes out and talks to the public. It’s amazing how many people that we meet there, (whether) they’re locals, or from the drive markets around our area, and people who visit from Europe and Canada. We’ve met Australians (and) South Americans—and it’s just wonderful to see the people walking our streets and enjoying our town.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

It’s funny: I deal with change like that very cautiously, but I’m excited about it. I was driving back from an appointment today and coming down Indian Canyon, and I thought that we’re down to two lanes, and there’s so much torn up just to change the curbs and doing this little bit of work. But when it’s done, I hope it’s going to present a great opportunity for new businesses to be sitting on both Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon. Also, I’m excited about the fact that the (new Agua Caliente) cultural center is tied into it. So, I think we’ve done the right thing. It does terminate at the right location, which is literally the same street that will be the end of the downtown arena that the tribe is planning. I think it’s going to be right thing to have done, ultimately.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

Well, maybe a subject: I am a retired banker who had a 40-year career in domestic and international banking, finance, managing operations, customer service, international loans and credit product management, which I feel has given me a strong background to be able to help the city move forward, especially with budgeting and looking at things effectively across the board. These are all things I did while handling sales, and dealing with the heads of corporations that we were selling products to, along with operations partners and systems partners. The negotiations that were required by my role and my staff’s role were pretty extensive.

I did take one year off, as my partner asked, to see if I could be successful at retirement. And I wasn’t. I needed to be able to exercise what I had spent my career doing, so I became a commissioner on Parks and Recreation, and ultimately the chair of that commission. I became a member of the Police Advisory Board as a representative of the LGBT community to the chief and was elected president of that board. I sat on the (Community Development Block) Grants committees for the last three years, where we actually evaluated all the requests for grants, and while we don’t make the final decisions on who gets the grants, we put the decisions before the City Council and that’s been a remarkable opportunity. To be able to facilitate businesses that are requesting sums of money for things that will help them aid the populations that they are required to serve has been great. Also, sitting on the homelessness task force and the downtown park committee has been very educational. So, I bring a background and a passion, and I want to continue to serve this community. So, that’s where I am at this point in my bid for office, and that’s where I want to take it.


Scott Myer, Civil Rights Attorney, 58 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

I think that the current City Council is not really listening to the people at many times. When I was going out and talking to people while collecting nominating signatures, I found they don’t think they’re being listened to. In that regard, I think that the creation of five districts, whether or not you agree with the reasons it was done, is a good idea, because it will bring the people closer to their representatives. So, in that respect, I think the issue has already been solved by the fact that they broke (the city) into five districts.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

Do you want a letter grade? I don’t think much has been done, but one thing that’s been done and seems to be helpful is the (opening of the overnight) cooling stations during the first week when it was 120+ degrees (during the day). That was very helpful, but Palm Springs isn’t the only city (with this challenge). Homelessness seems to be out of control, and I don’t know why that’s happened over the last two decades. But I sort of give everyone a failing grade—not just in Palm Springs, but everywhere. It seems there’s something wrong with what’s going on, because every couple of years, there are more homeless people than there were before. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that they are doing right (in Palm Springs).

I think there should be more cooperation with charities to try to help the people get back on their feet and give them some sense of well-being (and) some clothes, and help get them where they can go out and try to get jobs, and give them some (feeling of) self-worth. I think that charities might be able to help a lot in that regard.

I do think the cooling stations have been very helpful. But it’s a tough issue, because Palm Springs is by no means the only city suffering from that problem, and it seems to be happening not only in small cities, but large cities as well. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it, but I think it’s something that we’ve got to try and solve.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

Well, as a libertarian, I’m happy to see that society is finally advancing to being more free in this regard and realizing that criminalizing cannabis and some of these other minor drugs is just not the way to go. I’m happy to see that Palm Springs, as well as California and (much of) the rest of the nation, is moving in the right direction on that. In terms of the grow facilities, I’ve heard while talking to people that the one concern they do have is the aroma coming out of some of the cultivation facilities. So, I think there should be some thought (given) to where those are placed so that they are not right next to residences. That’s the one thing I think they need to look at a little better.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

We need a strong police department, and it will need cooperation from the public. I know that some people have expressed a desire to have police substations, especially in the northern Palm Springs area. If there was a substation nearby, then the police would be closer to the people.

Personally, I haven’t had any problems with the police. I heard about a home invasion that happened when the owners weren’t home, but aside from that, there hasn’t been a lot of crime where I’m living in Palm Springs, but I’m a little sheltered from that. Still, some people have expressed a concern that they would like to have the police a little more local to them. The other concern they had was the lack of lighting at night. I know that Palm Springs has a policy that the street lights are turned off so that you can see the stars, but in certain areas, (residents) have expressed concern that there’s not enough lighting at night, and it could be contributing to crime. 

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

Overall, it’s positive. It’s going to be helpful to the economy here, and it will create some jobs and help out the hotels and businesses. But the one concern I do have is: How are all these people going to get into town? What happens if there’s flooding on some of the access roadways? So, you have to look at whether the roads coming into Palm Springs are really up to the demand created by all these people coming on a regular basis to a big arena. But if those issues can be resolved, then, for the most part, I’m happy with it, and I think it will be good for the city.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

Possibly not, and it seems to me that some of the elements are saying that they’re still recovering from the last recession, like the police and fire departments that are just getting back to their pre-recession levels of staffing. So if they get hit with another recession, say, next year, I don’t think the city would probably be ready for it. We have to try to make sure that our tourism-dependent economy keeps having enough tourists coming here. I think we need to try to expand the base of tourists who come here, so it’s not just people from California and the United States, but try to get people to come from international (locations) as well. The more (worldwide travelers) you have out there, the less likely it is that, if the United States is hit with a recession, there would be a large impact (on the local economy), because there would still be tourist money coming here. One idea I’ve had to increase international tourism, is to develop “sister city” relationships.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

Go to Las Casuelas, the Mexican restaurant, for a margarita, an enchilada and chips with salsa.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

The first time I heard that idea, I thought, “What, are they crazy?” But then I listened to why they were doing it and the reasoning behind it, and it seems it has a lot to do with the businesses downtown. Then I started thinking about it, (and realized that) Indian Canyon was really underutilized for such a wide avenue; it had not so many cars, and it seemed that it probably can handle two-way traffic, as they were designing it now. I’m still in the wait-and-see (mode), but I’ve now listened to their arguments and seen their reasons for it, and I’m starting to agree that it’s probably a good idea. Although the proof will come after the fact, and hopefully it works, because I’d hate to see it have to be turned around again. I know they said they told everyone (in the city) about it, but a lot of people didn’t know about it until after it started happening or right before, and then there was a lot of wondering about what’s going on. But making changes like that is always hard. 

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

One issue in District 1 is that we have to figure out a way to stop the frequent Indian Canyon and Vista Chino road closures. Every winter, those roads keep flooding out. Probably Vista Chino needs some kind of bridge on it, and probably Indian Canyon does, too, but it’s so long and probably kind of expensive. But it seems that if they’re not closed for rain, then they’re closed for sand. Considering that those are two major access roads into the city, and if you tie it into the plans for the new arena, I do have a concern. If those roads are closed when there’s a big event at the arena, then everyone’s going to have to use other roads. It does put an emphasis on trying to resolve those issues.


Grace Garner, Attorney, 33 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

It’s affordable housing. Right now, we have a housing deficit in Southern California and in Palm Springs. Housing prices are extremely high in relation to the average earned income, so I believe that we have to get ahead of this and make sure that not only renting is affordable, but also that purchasing a home is more affordable.

Any thoughts on how you might approach that challenge?

We’re seeing a lot more development in the area, and one thing we could do as a city is require that developers (build) a certain percentage of homes at more affordable price points. We could conduct an exit study on housing and determine exactly what percentage we need to be affordable housing, and then require that amount for each new development.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

I would give the city an A. I think they’re doing a great job of moving this issue forward. Councilmembers (Christy) Holstege and (Geoff) Kors have been working really diligently on this along with the other members. I think that they’re on the right track and doing what needs to be done. It’s a hard issue. It’s not something that we can solve immediately, and it’s something that a lot of people have different views on and disagree on. That makes it difficult, but I think that they are doing what they need to do in order to move forward.

One of the things that I think would be great is to continue the work with the entire valley. You know, this isn’t just an issue in Palm Springs. It’s an issue for all of us in the Coachella Valley and Riverside County. I think it was great that the city reached out to the county and said, “Hey we need you, and you have to be an active partner in this.” I think more of that understanding between Coachella Valley and the county will help us move ahead. Obviously, it’s a huge issue, and there are things I don’t know about what has been tried, and I’d like to know more first before I recommend what needs to be done.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

Cannabis is certainly a big issue. I think the concern from the community is valid in that there are manufacturing and cultivation sites that are right up against neighborhoods. That’s something that just doesn’t work. I think it’s really important that the city change its ordinance to create a larger buffer zone between (the businesses) and neighborhoods. I know that at the last cannabis meeting, councilmembers Kors and (J.R.) Roberts discussed having a possible “green zone” into which we could put all the manufacturing and cultivation sites, and encourage the businesses that are not currently in those areas to move to those areas. I do hope that is something that will come forward as they work on the new ordinance.

I think it’s really important to make sure that community is involved in things like this. It’s not that we don’t want cannabis in the city. It’s more of a matter of how we have it, and where it is located. Right now, it’s located in neighborhoods that are predominantly (populated by) people of color. The city needs to take into consideration who is being impacted by this, and whose voices are actually being heard on the topic, so I would like the city to be more thoughtful in their long term planning on these types of issues. Instead of having to fix it now, I think it should have been considered from the very beginning.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

Right now, the crime statistics are pretty good. Obviously, crime at any level is not a good thing, but right now, the crime levels are fairly low, which is a positive. Unfortunately, there was a series of murders that have not been solved, which I know is a big concern to a lot of members of the community. I think that with so much tourism in Palm Springs, there are going to be issues like that. I think that, again, working with the community and creating more of a relationship between the community and the police to give citizens more comfort in wanting to go to the police and talk to the police when (crime) happens could be a big benefit. I know that the police officers right now are working on creating programs. I know they have some now, and they’re working on creating more. including (an initiative to) reach out to the community in Spanish, which I think is really important.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

Of course, the Cahuilla Indians are sovereign and are able to make decisions about what they would like to do on their land. I think that the arena has the potential to bring a lot of new jobs to the area, and I think it’s important for the city to work with the tribe to make sure that all the infrastructure needs are met, including parking and traffic, and that we do our best to keep the jobs local. We’ll need a lot of people to do the construction, and if we can focus on keeping those jobs local, that would be great. Again, I do have a concern about rising housing costs, and I hope that the city can be thinking about ways that our residents will be able to stay in the city and benefit from the arena and not be pushed out because of rising housing costs.

You just mentioned infrastructure concerns. I’m curious how you view the challenges that are created by the condition of the major north/south routes between Palm Springs and Interstate 10, for instance.

I think that the frequent closures on Palm Canyon are a big deal, not just for residents, but for tourists and for access (to the city) by our neighbors in Desert Hot Springs, too. That route is their (most) direct access to the hospital, and if it’s closed, then people could die. I think it is a concern, and we have to be thinking about how it affects us. I know that the city is looking into working with local conservation groups to discuss what options are available, because I know that some protections will be required for the fringe-toed lizard that lives in that area. But they are discussing barriers and other options. … I do hope that’s something that is taken very seriously, because we need access.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

I think the city has been doing a good job of making sure that there is funding in case something like that should happen. I know it’s been discussed during the last few budget processes, and I think that’s something we have to keep in mind even when times are good, because you just don’t know when something could change, and we’d need that additional funding. I would support being mindful of our planning and making sure that we’re repairing things before they are broken. For instance, I know that the bathrooms in our parks need to be updated, and it’s become a big concern, because some of them are often out of order. Things like that, we need to keep ahead of, so that we’re not wasting money by having to replace things completely instead of maintaining and repairing things as needed.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

Oh wow! That’s fun. I think … I would probably start downtown. I’ve been really liking El Patron, which is a new taco place. It’s really good and affordable, so I’d probably start there and then make my way either over to Seymour’s for a cocktail or to the Parker’s wine bar, Counter Reformation.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

You know what? I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m a second-generation resident, and for me, Indian Canyon has always been one-way, as is Palm Canyon, so it’s hard for me to imagine it being any different. But it does make sense to me theoretically, that having two ways on Indian Canyon will decrease traffic on Palm Canyon. So we’ll see what happens. I’m kind of withholding my judgment on that either way.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

One of the things that I’m most excited about with this campaign, and what really drove me to run for office, is that I think it’s important that we bring more people into our city government. Right now, our commissions are not diverse at all, and they don’t reflect the residents of Palm Springs, so I think it’s really important to make sure that the voices of our residents are heard: all ages, all racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds—we want to hear from everyone. I think that’s something that’s possible, and that’s something we’re doing with the campaign is reaching out to every single group. Even if they can’t vote, we’re interested in what they have to say, and I think that the city should be too.

The last few years have been quite transformative for the Desert Healthcare District (DHCD).

First, there was the need to change the board of directors election process from an at-large standard to a district-based approach, in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. As that process moved ahead, voters in the eastern Coachella Valley last November approved the district’s expansion beyond its antiquated Cook Street boundary, creating the potential for improved health-care access and services in the eastern valley—while necessitating that the district figure out how to fully fund services in the expanded district. That voter edict resulted in the launch of yet another rezoning process, which is currently under way.

Through these administrative and organizational challenges, the DHCD has continued to provide support to local health-care providers and community-service programs, addressing needs such as homelessness, public health and behavioral health.

It was against this backdrop on July 31 that the DHCD welcomed its new CEO, Dr. Conrado Barzaga. He brings some 20 years of experience ranging from health-care management and fund development to public-health and public-policy work. After completing his education as a physician and working in his native Cuba, Dr. Barzaga’s career path took him to Argentina, Bolivia and the United States.

Since coming to the U.S., he has held positions as a senior program officer for First 5 LA (2008-2012) and vice president for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (2006-2008), among other work in health education and public health. Most recently, he spent more than seven years as president and CEO of the Center for Oral Health, where he was instrumental in expanding programs to under-served communities.

During a recent phone interview, Dr. Barzaga talked about the challenges and responsibilities facing the district.

“I believe that addressing health-care needs requires information, intervention and ideas from different sectors,” he stated. “Of course, we need the ideas of those who are the recipients of health-care services, but we also need to understand and listen to the providers of health-care services. So we will inform our work by working with all the sectors of our society that are engaged in health care in one way or another, from the recipients, to the providers, and to the systems.”

Barzaga spoke about the value of data aggregation and analysis in identifying and understanding the health-care needs and desires of the valley’s residents.

“I want to engage our community (in order) to listen and to learn,” he said. “Our board is elected by the people, and therefore, it must respond to the people. They will tell us what they perceive to be their priorities. From a data-gathering perspective, it is important that we gather as many indicators as we can. There are different sources (from which) we can get that data, including California’s Department of Health Care Services and the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—you name it. But it is the community’s participation which is going to provide the best intelligence and the best approach to addressing the needs of the district.”

Barzaga addressed the expansion of the district into the eastern Coachella Valley—including some of the area’s most under-served communities.

“We need to understand how the health inequities manifest in the health disparities in the district,” he said. “We need to quantify and qualify those disparities. That will help the district understand where it can have a more profound impact, what the best approach will be, and how the limited resources that we manage can have the best outcome and the best return on the public-dollar investments in the district.” Barzaga wants to utilize surveys, town-hall meetings, focus groups and individual interviews to, in his words, “distill and construct a cohesive long-term approach to how we’re going to foster a healthy one Coachella Valley 2030/2040/2050 (strategic plan).”

Lightheartedly, he added, “I’m in it for the long run.”

The Independent asked Dr. Barzaga how he views the collaborative effort involving the DHCD, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) and the office of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to address the homelessness situation in a number of our desert’s cities.

“Homelessness has important public-health implications,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a very complex issue that requires a collaborative approach to have a collective impact. Thus far, the district-commissioned report (on homelessness in our region) has been the framework for how the community can approach the issues of homelessness in the Coachella Valley.”

The district has committed $3 million to go toward addressing homelessness in the Coachella Valley.

“There was a request for proposals released very recently to invite different providers in the community to come up with ideas and plans on how to help solve the challenge of homelessness in the Coachella Valley,” Barzaga said. “I think the district has been active and has been a significant force in catalyzing and providing resources to our community partners to address homelessness.”

Does Dr. Barzaga feel the DHCD’s expansion of service into the east valley is producing desired results yet?

“From my perspective, the board is deeply committed to the expansion,” he said. “We held six community forums in the first half of this year in Mecca, North Shore, Coachella, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indio. We’re sharing information with the community about the work of the district, and raising awareness about who we are, what we do, and how we can work together to make the district better. We had very good feedback from the community, and it was made clear through that process that, because of the expansion, some of these priorities are going to shift.

“The realities and the needs of the eastern Coachella Valley are different from the needs of the western Coachella Valley. One of the public-health functions of a health-care district is to address health-care disparities. We believe that there are many, and to address them, we need to understand and apply the lens of the social determinants of health, (in order) to make investments that are long-term, transformational and help to create a healthy Coachella Valley.

“Part of our community outreach effort is the platform we created called the Coachella Valley Health Information Place (CVHIP). It’s an online resource that any social-service workers, health-care providers, community health workers and community members can have access to. It connects different resources with the people who need access to those resources, like housing, food, health care, health insurance, day care, etc.

“To give you some examples, fire departments and police departments are using that (online) resource when they encounter people who need access to services—whether it’s behavioral health, housing, food, you name it. They are using this tool daily to provide solutions to the people they encounter in their daily work. Still, we’re promoting it everyday.”

We asked Barzaga if he had a message that he wanted to communicate through this interview—his first since assuming the new position.

“Rezoning is another topic which is now a priority for the district,” Dr. Barzaga said. “So far, we have had two public hearings this year, and we have two more coming up, and like the municipalities that have gone through the rezoning process, our aim is to have a board that reflects the various communities in the Coachella Valley. So we are really encouraging the public to come out and help us.”

Those hearings will be held during the district’s board meetings on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and Tuesday, Oct. 22. To view the initial set of proposed maps, visit www.dhcd.org/zoning.

Joshua Tree National Park received some good news in August thanks to an announcement by the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) that it had “purchased 40 acres of pristine desert within Joshua Tree National Park. The acquisition lies in an area where MDLT is helping preserve the border of the National Park.”

The press release went on to say: “The MDLT plans to eventually convey the land to Joshua Tree National Park. To date, MDLT has acquired 10,004 acres within JTNP, of which 80 percent has been conveyed over (to) the National Park Service. MDLT has donated more tracts of land to the NPS than any other nonprofit since 2006.”

Park Superintendent David Smith told the Independent that the land trust has been a strong friend and partner to the park over the last decade.

“That land is down in the southern part of the park in Riverside County, in the Little San Bernardino mountain range,” Smith said. “It’s an isolated little pocket that did not have road access to it, but any inholding within the park boundary holds the potential for (outside private) development.”

“Inholding” is a legal term for any private property that sits within the boundaries of a national park.

“Ever since the founding of the National Park Service back in 1916, the very first director of the NPS determined that inholdings pose a significant threat to the parks,” Smith said. “Although it is highly unlikely that someone would put a house there, or do drilling there, the mere fact that it exists poses a potential threat to the sanctity of the park. That parcel is in an area that’s all wilderness, so for someone to potentially develop that area using mechanized tools and machinery would violate the whole spirit of the Wilderness Act. For the park to acquire a plot like that helps protect the wilderness, and it’s within the long-term mission of the NPS to acquire in-holdings (whenever possible).”

National parks generally consider acquiring land parcels when they’re part of a wildlife corridor that would help protect animals that are migrating; inholdings inside a park that someone might develop; or places that have significant recreational opportunities for park visitors.

The JTNP is enjoying yet another record year of visitor attendance, despite the government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, 2018, and continued through Jan. 25, 2019.

“I’ve never seen so many people climbing on the rocks here as I have over this past year. It’s a spectacular park for getting on the granite,” Smith said. “We’ve seen such a big jump in visitation over the last five years, going from 1.3 million to 3 million visitors per year. That was concerning to the management team here, but we’ve got some long-term plans in place to make sure that the infrastructure we have in the park can deal with that number of people.”

Major projects currently in the works include a new visitors’ center in the southern portion of the park down at Cottonwood, for which construction should begin in 2021 or 2022; a new entrance station in Joshua Tree, which will create four entrance points to increase the flow of traffic going into the park; and major infrastructure fixes up at the Black Rock Campground, which, Smith told us, will involve improved access to the Samuelson’s Rocks.

“Samuelson’s was one of the properties that MDLT had acquired for the national park,” he stated. “I think they got it a couple of years ago. This was an historic site in the middle of the park that was an inholding. It’s a significant location of rock art. Well, I guess rock art might be a bit of a stretch; it (features) prophetic sayings that were inscribed on the rocks about 100 years ago by (John) Samuelson, who was kind of a socialist/pioneer/desert rat. We’re planning on building a visitor plaza that can help guide visitors out there, (and) provide much more parking at that location and a lot more interpretive waysides and exhibits. Hopefully, if somebody doesn’t make it into our main visitor center, they can stop off at the Samuelson’s trail head and get a good feel for why Joshua Tree is special and how to protect it.”

Established in 1994, JTNP should see the actual conveyance of this new 40-acre plot completed within the next few years.

“First, we have to make sure that there are no hazardous materials on the site. Then, we have to make sure that the property belongs to MDLT and that there are no other existing claims to its ownership out there,” Smith said. “Eventually, it has to be approved on up the chain (at the NPS). There is a law … that states the NPS has the authority to take in small chunks of property like this one, especially when it’s within the boundary of the park. For bigger chunks of property, or ones that are not actually touching or within the park boundaries, we actually have to get a law passed to make it part of the park. But this case is an administrative action, which is a lot easier than passing a public law.”

In the meantime, all park visitors have access to the newly purchased area—if they’re determined enough to trek out to the isolated area, which offers some amazing and pristine views.

“MDLT manages their properties as if they are national park properties, so it’s open to visitors now,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t recommend hiking out there right now, because it’s hotter than Hades. But I would say: Come back in the fall or early winter. I love that chunk of the park. It’s very seldom visited by anyone, and it does have some stunning views of the Coachella Valley, looking down toward the Salton Sea (in the east) and all the way up towards San Jacinto (in the west). It’s just a stunning chunk of property.”

Finally, the Independent asked Smith if—even as the park he oversees welcomes new land acquisitions such as this one—he worries about the possibility that the current federal administration, or future ones, might lead the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to sell off or otherwise harm Joshua Tree National Park.

“The current laws that exist, like the Organic Act of the National Park Service and others, protect these places for posterity,” Smith said. “That’s the whole intent. So these places are going to be around forever. Regardless of the administration, throughout the history of this agency, every single administration has honored and supported that, and helped protect it. That’s every single administration. So I don’t have any fears, because I really do have a lot of trust in our system of government and the laws that the president and Congress have passed to protect our parks.”

It was late in June when La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano met two other students—Diego Martinez, from West Valley High School in Hemet, and Julia Melendez-Hiriart, from Ramona High School in Riverside—at the Southwest Airlines terminal at the Ontario airport.

The three students had never before met in person, but they were flying together to Washington, D.C., for the 2019 R2L NextGen week-long program, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).

The program—launched in 2011 by the CHCI with the support of founding sponsor State Farm—has helped bring 533 students to Washington, D.C., over the past nine years. Two trips this summer brought 103 students from 17 different areas of the country to our nation’s capital to learn about the federal government, meet important leaders, visit historic sites, and develop a deeper understanding about how they can make positive changes in their communities. Macy’s provided gift cards to students before their trips to D.C. so they could purchase professional clothing.

“It was started to help develop young high school leaders as they emerge and become more active on college campuses,” said Dennis Gonzalez, the CHCI’s director of leadership programs, about the R2L NextGen program. “They learn more about how government works, as well as civic engagement and advocacy.”

Getting accepted to participate in the program is no easy task.

“We had over 500 applications this year,” Gonzalez said.

Luevano said she had to go through a follow-up interview after the application process, which included submitting a written essay, a resume and a letter of recommendation.

“I had been contacted a few times to try to set up a call for an (application) interview,” Luevano said, “and it kind of wasn’t working out because of the time difference: After school here, it was 3 p.m., and in D.C., it was 6 p.m., which was after work hours. But finally, I got the call. … He was asking me questions just like any other interview. Then, just as it ended, the program director told me, ‘Well, you’ve been accepted.’ I was really shocked. I had never been part of a program that was so big. … Getting your round-trip transportation and your housing and meals covered in another city across the country—it was such a great opportunity.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz said he enjoyed meeting Luevano and the other participating students.

“Lizbeth told me that this was the first time that she ever flew on a plane,” Ruiz said during a phone interview. “She’s also from a farmworker family, like mine. So, the experience and the opportunity (for her) to find out how great and expansive the world is—to meet other students from across the country, and to expand her understanding of our country—is really remarkable. It could be a life-changer.”

We asked Luevano about the highlights of her time in Washington, D.C.

“I think the biggest was when we went to Capitol Hill, and we got to speak with our representatives. We (three) actually met with staff members of Rep. Mark Takano, who represents part of Riverside County, but not the Coachella Valley,” she said. “The other students met with the staffs of their representatives. It was pretty great just walking around. Some of the students even got to meet AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and I was really jealous that we didn’t get the chance to.”

The more down-to-earth components of the experience left a strong impression on Luevano.

“Another big part of it was the network that we kind of created,” she said. “At one point, Jacqueline Lopez, from Dr. Ruiz’s office, was at a panel discussion, and some of the people on the panel were from the Coachella Valley, too. It was really interesting that people from our background in Indio were in D.C., having this political engagement, and being right where all these big decisions are being made.

“A great thing about CHCI is that it exposes you to a broader definition of ‘Hispanic,’” Luevano said. “I’m so used to thinking about Hispanics as being Mexican, because that’s just what the majority is here where I live. So being around Cubans, Puerto Ricans and people from the Dominican Republic, and being able to talk to them—you definitely find cultural differences. Like: I always carry these packets of Tapatio hot sauce in my bag, and I’m so used to everyone knowing what it is. When they didn’t get what it was, it blew my mind. My roommates were two people from L.A., and another person from Miami, Fla.; she was Cuban. We all got to know each other really well.

“While we were there, we were able to get back to our hotel in time to watch the first Democratic Party presidential-candidate debates. Just being in a room with all of these individuals and being able to discuss anything that came into our mind, it was really great.”

The experience clearly made a huge impression on Luevano—and she made an impression on the people with whom she interacted.

“The students who come are really great, fantastic young people,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes I’ll be chatting with them, and I start wondering what I was doing at their age, and if I was being productive. When they’re having conversations with national leaders or they’re meeting with different presenters, they ask amazing questions. They’re very insightful, motivated and impassioned about what they’re doing.

“Even though Lizbeth seemed to be very quiet at first, once she got going, she became very active during the week. I think that the chance for her to connect with all the other students who attended was a great opportunity. I think what this program does is let all the kids know that they’re not alone, and that there are other kids who are really engaged in this stuff, too. Also, it gives them a glimpse into what college may be like, and I think they get more excited about their future opportunities once they’ve participated in the program.”

Ruiz said he was impressed by Luevano.

“Lizbeth is a very bright, intelligent, motivated, dedicated and caring person who wants to better herself in order to serve the community,” Ruiz said. “I’m proud that she is a resident of the Coachella Valley, because I know that she will accomplish her dreams and come back to the Coachella Valley and serve our communities. I’m really excited about this program and the opportunity it offers. Seventy percent of the students that go through this program become first-generation college students. That’s pretty remarkable.”

Luevano is part of that 70 percent.

“I’m applying to liberal-arts colleges on the East Coast to get out of my comfort zone and go further away,” Luevano said. “I’m looking into Bowdoin (in Maine) and Swarthmore (in Pennsylvania). I’m just going to be confident and apply.”

It’s been hot in the Coachella Valley—including a 121-degree day on Aug. 5—and no segment of our community is more threatened by that heat than the valley’s homeless population.

It was a 115-degree day on June 11 that helped spur the city of Palm Springs to partner with Riverside County to open an emergency overnight cooling center at the Demuth Community Center—and that partnership helped lead to an even larger collaboration to open three new long-term overnight cooling centers in the valley.

The centers opened July 1, the result of a partnership between the county, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, and the three cities where the centers are located. The Coachella Valley Rescue Mission is staffing the centers, with the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation offering support.

Greg Rodriguez is the government affairs and public policy adviser to Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez.

“Supervisor Perez and I were approached by the city of Palm Springs to try to get (an overnight cooling center) opened this year,” Rodriguez said. “Supervisor Perez suggested that we should try it in the three cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. It’s easier for transportation—for the homeless individuals who don’t want to leave the city that they are in—so that’s how the three new nighttime centers were developed this year.

“Ideally, I’m working on some other projects that hopefully will result in more permanent facilities for next year that would be 24-hour operations,” like those in the east valley.

In Indio, both the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and Martha’s Village and Kitchen offer spaces where homeless individuals can both stay cool and access a variety of other needed services.

“(Our facility) is a place where we provide services, but the west valley does not (have such a place),” said Tom Cox, program director at CVRM. “… If there were a west valley shelter, or navigation center, or whatever they’re calling it this week, then they would be more successful. It really is that simple: One, have a place. Two, put service providers in that place who are going to make a real difference—and, three, there will be results.”

Daytime summer cooling centers have been a regular feature across Riverside County and the Coachella Valley for decades.

“The daytime cooling centers are managed by Riverside County through the Community Action Partnership, or CAP,” Rodriguez said. “We try to add new sites when possible. When we get really extreme temperatures, they’ll expand their hours during the day. But we haven’t had any nighttime cooling centers.”

Until now. However, it wasn’t easy to get the overnight cooling centers up and running.

“There were a lot of logistics,” Cox said. “Staffing was one, because you need staff that are compassionate and know what they’re doing. You needed port-a-potties, port-a-showers and portable storage units. … (People in need) get a shower, a clean set of clothes and a meal.”

The collaboration has not only filled an urgent need; it’s raised hopes of even further partnerships to help the homeless in the valley.

“I’ve started kind of a new role,” Rodriguez said. “I’m still with Supervisor Perez’s office, but I’m heading up a homelessness collaborative effort through the Coachella Valley Association of Governments in conjunction with the Desert Healthcare District and Riverside County. Also, it has the support of the valley’s nine cities through CVAG. … We did contract through CVAG with the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission (CVRM) to handle all the daily operations. I’m more involved in the conceptual side, the financing side and, of course, tracking (data) the results. Ideally, we’re not only hoping to get people cool at night, but also get them tied into some homelessness services as well. In fact, we’ve had success with that already in the case of at least six individuals.”

Can any resident of the valley escape the summer heat in one of these facilities?

“The daytime cooling centers serve all of the (valley’s) residents,” Rodriguez said. “The nighttime centers mainly focus just on the homeless population. That being said, if somebody’s electricity should go out, and they don’t have air conditioning or they don’t have the funds to run their air all the time, they’re welcome to use the centers. We’re not prohibitive, but the focus is on the chronically homeless population who are sleeping out in the elements.”

Both Rodriguez and Cox extolled the involvement of the Desert Healthcare District, which threw resources and fundraising muscle behind the cooling center program expansion.

“Regarding the new nighttime centers, we’ve had them open for a month now, and they will be open (until the end of September),” Rodriguez said. “In the first month, it’s been highly successful.”

In July, the three centers served more than 250 people and fulfilled well more than 3,000 service requests.

“There’s still a need for additional funds, because we’re helping to cover the extra utility costs of the churches who have donated their space,” Cox said. “This is where the DHCD has been such a great partner by matching any of the privately donated funds that have come in. The Desert Healthcare District has been great in providing us with email (outreach) to share what we need, and their Summer Homeless Survival Fund has done a pretty awesome job as well, and in a short time.”

What can valley residents contribute to support these vital new community shelters?

“Towels, toiletries, linens and pillows are all things that we need, and we have to launder them every day,” Cox said. “We need bottled water, individually wrapped snacks, coffee, paper products, air fresheners, clothing and undergarments. Bombas socks just donated about 7,500 pairs of socks. … For the centers themselves, we need bike racks, storage racks, a few laptops, some commercial laundry washers and dryers. If somebody has an extra SUV or van lying around, we could definitely use those. We need a lot.”

The three cooling centers are open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the city of Palm Springs facility at 225 S. El Cielo Road; World Life of Fellowship Center, 66290 Estrella Ave., in Desert Hot Springs; and Community Presbyterian Church, 38088 Chuperosa Lane, in Cathedral City.

To donate supplies, call Tom Cox at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission at 760-347-3512, ext. 251, or drop them off at 47470 Van Buren St., in Indio. Cash donations can be made through the Desert Healthcare District at www.dhcd.org/HomelessFund.

It was on Nov. 21, 2008, in downtown Coachella when “an initial kickoff meeting and afternoon walking tour was conducted by the project team and city staff,” according to the Coachella Pueblo Viejo Plan (CPVP) “Vision” section.

Over the next seven months, community workshops were held; input was solicited from key city representatives; and the look of a future revitalized downtown area came into focus.

“Pueblo Viejo is the civic and cultural heart of Coachella,” said the CPVP plan final draft. “The community is proud of the historic charm, locally owned businesses, and vibrant civic center. As you enter through the attractive gateways on Sixth Street, you are immersed in a lively street scene offering shady walkways, cooling water fountains, outdoor dining and unique shopping. Once-empty lots are now filled with mixed‐use buildings that respect the heritage, climate and community values. Family‐friendly events and festivals fill the streets and public spaces. As you relax in the clean, well-maintained civic center core, you know … you have arrived in Pueblo Viejo!”

However, this is not the reality that greets you today if you visit those downtown blocks; more than 10 years later, the plan has yet to bear fruit. However, further revitalization may be finally coming to downtown Coachella: The city recently announced it was getting a nearly $15 million boost to fund affordable housing and a transportation center, in the form of a grant from the state via the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program (AHSC).

“We are happy to be the recipients of a $15 million grant that we worked very hard to get for the past three years,” said Jacob Alvarez, Coachella’s assistant to the city manager, during a recent phone interview. “This is an area (of California) that hasn’t been supported before—and that includes pretty much the whole Coachella Valley, Blythe and Imperial Valley, for that matter. So this is our first award, and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez touted the grant in the press release.

“This is another great project to enhance the Pueblo Viejo neighborhood downtown,” Hernandez said, according to the release. “The convenient location offers easy access to jobs and services at the new Department of Public Social Services building and sits next to the recently acquired Etherea sculpture. Plus, it is a short walk to the new library, expanding senior center, and shops and restaurants.”

The grant is slated to fund 105 net-zero-energy affordable housing units and a SunLine/vanpool hub with shade trees and public restrooms. The project will also bring 2 new miles of bikeways and 3,000 feet of new sidewalks.

While the funding is for another project and not the Coachella Pueblo Viejo Plan, the $14,895,407 gives the city the keystone redevelopment funding it has needed for more than a decade.

“Probably a good six to eight months ago, we received an urban greening grant to plant 188 trees, create connecting sidewalks and build an urban hiking path,” Alvarez said. “We see all of this as a nice addition to our overall vision, and we’re in the process right now of having these features designed as well.”

These are all stems in creating a centralized community and business hub in the eastern valley city that was incorporated in 1946.

“The AHSC is a grant program through the Strategic Growth Council of the state,” said Alvarez said. “They’re advocating for you to build in a way that reduces vehicle miles traveled, because that will help reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants by keeping some vehicles off the road. This is provided to us from the cap-and-trade payments made by corporations to the state.”

The city is calling the newly funded project the Downtown Coachella Net Zero Housing and Transportation Collaboration, with partners including the SunLine Transit Agency, the Inland Regional Center, CalVans and the Chelsea Investment Corporation. When asked if the other partners were contributing funds to the effort, Alvarez said they were not.

“In fact, I believe (SunLine) will be receiving some of the (grant) funds to buy additional hydrogen buses,” Alvarez said. “And then there is CalVans as well; that will receive roughly 40 vans for people to use in carpooling. They will pick up at the transportation hub where people can park their cars and travel together to common destinations (around the valley).”

How soon will the transformation become apparent to the city residents? Alvarez said the project could be completed in less than two years.

“We’re in the design phase, and that is running from now through January or February 2020,” Alvarez said. “We (soon) expect to get the conceptual drawings from Chelsea Investment Corp., the developer. We anticipate that there may be shovels in the ground by July 2020, if everything goes smoothly. The grant expires, I believe, on June 30, 2021, which is the end of the fiscal year for both us and the state. So we have about a year to complete the work (after groundbreaking).”

In April 2016, a number of concerned Palm Springs residents banded together to form the Save Oswit Canyon (SOC) movement. The goal: Stop a real estate developer’s plan to build several hundred homes—and a flood-control dam which would measure the length of a prone Empire State Building—in the beautiful canyon.

In the three-plus years since, SOC conservationists have fought battles on multiple fronts. SOC supporters have held rallies, lobbied politicians, gathered thousands of signatures to file a public initiative, raised funds, fought in the courts and negotiated with developers in an effort to buy the environmentally sensitive acreage off of South Palm Canyon Drive.

Fast-forward to July 17, when the SOC team issued a press release with the cryptic heading, “The Fate of Oswit Canyon Has Been Determined! Will It Become a New Neighborhood or Will It Be Preserved?” Media attendance was requested at a press conference to be held the following day at Oswit Canyon.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, SOC founder and president Jane Garrison stepped behind a podium emblazoned with a majestic photo of an endangered bighorn sheep. After some brief introductory remarks, Garrison commented: “I have some good news, and I have some depressing, urgent news. The good news is that, after a 3 1/2 year battle, the developer has finally agreed to sell the property.”

The small but energetic crowd erupted in cheers and applause. “That is a huge hurdle that we’ve gotten over,” Garrison said. “We’ve been working with the incredible Jim Karpiak (executive director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy), and the CVMC has been hard at work behind the scenes for awhile now to find us federal and state grants to purchase this property. The city of Palm Springs has been great and has agreed to contribute to the purchase of this property, because we all know that the only way to truly save open space is to buy it. We can battle this in court for years and years, and we will if we have to—but we don’t want to. We want to purchase it and conserve it for our generation and for generations to come.

“Now, the depressing news,” Garrison continued. “We are in the process of working everything out, but we have estimated that we are going to be $1 million short” of the more than $6.6 million total needed.

“I’m appealing to my friends, neighbors and the community to say that, ‘We can’t lose this piece of property. Not over a million dollars,’” Garrison said. “It would be so tragic. If every single resident of Palm Springs donated only $25, we would be there. It’s an easy number to achieve if everyone put their minds into helping.”

Garrison went on to urge people to donate, and to also consider staging house parties or other types of fundraisers—because the $1 million shortfall has to be made up by Dec. 31. Garrison tried to get more time to raise the funds, she said, but the developers would not cooperate.

“I think we can do it,” Garrison said. “We collected over 5,000 signatures in 30 days. … I know we can do it, but I’m here, because I can’t do it alone. So I’m asking for help. It would be so tragic to lose this ecosystem that is home to endangered bighorn sheep, to bobcats, to foxes, to mountain lions, to protected migratory birds.”

Garrison said two generous donors have pledged up to $50,000 each in matching donations for individual contributions made between now and the end of August, thus doubling their impact.

“I can’t stress enough,” Garrison said, “that this is our only chance. So I’m urging all residents to make a donation. Whatever you think you can afford to donate, double it.”

Karpiak, of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, next addressed the audience.

“We’re a state agency, and we try to bring funding to the Coachella Valley whenever we can,” he said. “We mostly focus on acquiring land for conservation. This land is critical now. Due to a regulatory quirk in how the multiple species conservation plan of the Coachella Valley was drafted, and the fact that it was tribal land at one time, this (parcel) is not included as protected land under that plan. … This land is valuable for its stunning beauty as well as for its big role in the ecological system here.

“We’re putting together a package of funding. We don’t know how much yet, but we’re working with the federal government to get some more grants. Several million dollars have been mentioned, but it’s probably not going to be enough, since this is valuable land, but hopefully with the help of the community, we will fund it successfully.”

Palm Springs City Councilmember Geoff Kors also spoke briefly to the group.

“We have a great opportunity right now,” Kors said. “Sometimes people have said (to me), ‘Open space doesn’t build roads or provide any resources for the city.’ And I always respectfully say, ‘I disagree.’ It is our open space and our mountains that draw tourism. And that, actually, does pay to pave our roads and provide for public safety. It’s one of the reasons so many of us live here, and why are property values are what they are. So, it’s critical, just from an economic point of view, that preserving open space is so critical for our city.

“The city in the past has done such a great job with the Chino Cone, and now we’re looking at property near the tram, and at Rimrock, and now this. This really is a great step in the right direction. It only gets done as a public/private partnership.”

Donations, which are tax deductible, can be made at saveoswitcanyon.org.

The Grub Plug food truck was parked by the Oasis Street curb in front of the College of the Desert’s Indio campus late in the day on a Tuesday.

The city of Indio’s Community Development Department (ICD) was offering the first 120 visitors to their Indio Specific Plan open house—taking place in the college’s main-building lobby—a free food-truck meal, along with the chance to learn information on how to start a food-truck business of one’s own. All the ICD team wanted in return was for each visitor to walk through the display of a half-dozen white boards placed on easels, depicting photos and artist renderings of residential, entertainment-venue and business building options. Visitors were asked to place a colored dot on the images they most liked or disliked.

Judging from the lengthy lines both inside and next to the Grub Plug truck, the marketing strategy was a success, as Kevin Snyder—Indio’s recently hired community development director—and his team look to create a master plan that will guide the redevelopment of Indio’s struggling downtown area.

“In the planning profession, we do things more in a visual (context),” said Snyder, a veteran of similar challenges in cities across northern California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona. “At our first open house, we had a few pictures up, and we just talked to people who came in, and wrote down their comments. This time, we wanted to make (the experience) more interactive, so we produced these illustration boards.”

If you visit downtown Indio today, you’ll experience an often-attractive neighborhood with a traditional Southwest/midcentury-modern architectural look—and a sleepy, deserted feeling. Snyder and his team are planning to change that whole vibe.

“For many, many years, downtowns were the hearts of communities. But then, through changes in market forces and land use, particularly during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, a lot of that activity moved to other parts of communities like malls and shopping centers,” Snyder said. “It’s been a pretty common occurrence, not just in Indio, but across the Coachella Valley, California and the nation. In a lot of communities, there’s been a strong desire to bring downtown back to a place of prominence, where the community can engage with each other to shop, dine, recreate and come together in kind of an historic part of the community. This current Indio Downtown Specific Plan is really an attempt to take the focus to a different level on the key attributes that our city has: It’s walkable, and it’s a grid system.

“Most of the communities in the Coachella Valley have downtowns that are not grid systems, but because we are one of the oldest communities (in the valley), we have the opportunity to develop that grid system for our downtown. The plan envisions multiple activity areas where you can go and listen to music, or watch movies on an inflatable screen, or go grab a bite to eat, or shop in a small boutique retail outlet. There’s interest in having people live downtown. We have some interesting opportunities to look at multi-family apartments, perhaps in a mixed-use orientation where you have retail space on the ground floor with living (space) above. Because we are the eastern capital of Riverside County, we have county personnel here; we have the city work force; and we have the Indio branch of the College of the Desert—so we have roughly 6,000 employees in that immediate downtown area. We’ve talked to developers who do multi-family development. They’ve done some preliminary looks at market-rate rental numbers, and they think (the opportunity) is viable, that they could charge rents here and make money.”

Will downtown redevelopment include low-income housing units—which are sorely needed in the eastern end of the valley? Snyder’s answer was not exactly encouraging.

“In recent conversations with our City Council and the Planning Commission, that same question came up. Our interest right now is in getting market-rate rental units,” Snyder said. “We believe that’s going to be the first push into this marketplace. Now that doesn’t mean that potentially there couldn’t be affordable housing in the downtown area, but right now, we really want to focus on creating that market-rate opportunity so that the private sector sees value in investment. The first people who invest in revitalizing downtown areas are often pioneers who, by having made that investment and taken that risk, show others that it’s worth it, and that they can make money. I worked in a community where we had one party come in and build a 124-unit market-rate apartment complex, and five years later, there was over $100 million in investment money coming into that community.

“When we talked to the council and the commission, we said that these could be four- or five-story buildings, and they were comfortable with that. When you’re dealing with downtown areas, you’re dealing with different footprints. You can’t spread out like you can in other parts of the community. You have to build up.”

How long does Synder think it will take for this new Indio downtown to come to fruition?

“If I knew that, then I’d be playing the lottery all the time,” Snyder said with a laugh. “But I have said publicly that I think we’re probably looking at five to seven years. If you come back to downtown Indio then, I think it’s going to have a different vibe, a different feeling, a different physical presence. Right now, many communities have a goal of making an 18-hour downtown, where, from the morning until 9 or 10 at night, you get an opportunity to have multiple things going on.

“Indio is the place I want to be. I think it’s a great place, and it has lots of great opportunities to envision a different future—and I get the benefit of working with a great team.”

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