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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

Published in Local Issues

Despite a growing economy and decreasing unemployment, the homeless population in the Coachella Valley is expanding—at an alarming rate.

The annual Riverside County “point in time” count in January showed the homeless population had increased from 1,351 unsheltered and 814 sheltered individuals in 2016, to 1,638 unsheltered and 775 sheltered in 2017.

The Coachella Valley cities had 297 homeless individuals in 2016—and 425 individuals in 2017. Another alarming fact: The number of homeless individuals locally without shelter is about to rise, because Roy’s Resource Center, the only shelter for the homeless on the west end of the Coachella Valley, is slated to close at the end of June.

The beleaguered facility in North Palm Springs is shutting its doors largely because some local city governments have not been paying their share to keep Roy’s financially solvent. Before the center opened in 2009, all nine Coachella Valley cities agreed to give $100,000 a year in support. While Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indio have upheld their ends of the bargain, more or less, the other cities have not. In fact, the city of La Quinta has given nothing to Roy’s, although it has given financial support to Martha’s Village and Kitchen and the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission.

Sabby Jonathan, the mayor pro tem of Palm Desert, is the chair of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ Homelessness Committee. He explained the reasons behind the closure of Roy’s Resource Center.

“The services and management for Roy’s are being provided by Jewish Family Services of San Diego, and they notified CVAG and the county last year that they wouldn’t be renewing the contract when it terminates on June 30,” Jonathan said. “The reason is for the last several years, they’ve been contributing about $100,000 a year to fund the annual deficit. As service providers, they’re supposed to be getting paid, not putting money in.

“When they announced they weren’t going to renew their contract, we searched for different service providers, and none came forward. The county made a decision to convert that facility as a long-term mental-health facility.”

Jonathan tried to put a positive spin on the conversion, despite the significant loss in services for the homeless.

“It won’t be Roy’s, but it will still be a facility out there in that location providing different services,” he said. “That’s really a plus for the community, because we don’t have that kind of facility (for mental-health services) in the desert at this time, and we really need it. The key will be to replace the services that Roy’s was providing—specifically, housing for 90-plus people.”

The closure will undoubtedly lead to a significant increase in the number of unsheltered homeless—at the time of year when shelter is needed most.

“We just had a ‘point in time’ count, and it shows that if we look at the nine valley cities, the increase in homelessness in the Coachella Valley is 43 percent: We went from 297 to 425. That’s huge. If Roy’s closes down, and we have no provision for the 90 people it currently houses, the increase is even more dramatic, because we’re talking about going from 297 to 515, and that’s crazy. We are at a crisis point, and we absolutely need to come together and replace that facility.”

However, a quick and easy replacement is not in the cards. On April 19, the CVAG Homelessness Committee approved something called the West Valley Housing Navigation Program. The plan, which is not finalized, includes a mixture of diversion and prevention programs.

It does not, however, include a new west side shelter.


On the east side of the Coachella Valley, the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and Martha’s Village provide services to the homeless—but after the loss of Roy’s, there will be no service providers on the west side, even though more and more homeless people are located in the western Coachella Valley.

“We need to make sure there is housing for those people and more on the west end of the valley,” Jonathan (pictured) said. “The homeless population went from 138 on the west end of the valley to 225; that is Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs and Cathedral City. That’s a 63 percent increase in homelessness on the west end of the valley. We can’t ignore that. We need to create housing for those people. It needs to be on the west end and can’t be on the east end in Indio or in the central valley. It needs to be where they are, and they’re on the west end of the valley—225 out of 425 total.”

Jonathan said the middle-of-nowhere location of Roy’s also played a part in its demise.

“The intent of Roy’s was to create a homeless shelter on the west side of the valley. Unfortunately, while it was well-intentioned, it was doomed to failure due to the lack of transportation,” he said. “That drained over $300,000 from the annual budget just to get the folks back and forth, because (Roy’s) was closed during the day: The residents would be transported to Palm Springs during the day and brought back. That meant that Roy’s Resource Center had to own, operate and maintain a fleet of buses. We’ve learned the lesson, and now our efforts are focused on working with the cities on the west end to create housing in one or more of those locations.”

Of course, due to NIMBY-ism, residents have long fought the presence of homeless shelters near their homes and businesses.

Many have questioned whether or not the homeless situation can be fixed. However, Jonathan offered a couple of success stories.

“It’s true that you can’t eliminate it completely, but you absolutely can make a dent and improve the situation,” Jonathan said. “In the city of Riverside, homelessness among veterans has virtually been eliminated. That’s important, and that’s proof that success, at least in part, can be attained.”

A program in Indio has shown promise as well.

“Another case in point is the program utilized in the city of Indio known as CORP (Community Outreach Resource Program), which is a program that takes homeless people and puts them through a process that is six to nine months, which includes job-training. Health issues and addiction issues are addressed. If they graduate, their case is brought in front of a tribunal, which includes a sitting judge, and representation from the district attorney’s office, probation office and the sheriff’s department. Any outstanding warrants and fines are rescinded. That allows for any homeless person to escape that cycle and re-enter society. Without that, they have debt over their head; they can’t get a driver’s license, and they can’t drive to a job interview. It’s next to impossible.

“Just in the last three or so years this program has been going on in Indio, there have been 91 participants, and 89 have graduated and have had their warrants and fines removed. None of those 89 have returned to homelessness.”


Scott Wolf, the development manager at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio, said the mission has seen an increase in the need for housing and shelter.

“We’re completely full,” Wolf said. “We’re always limited in resources, and primarily limited in the beds that we have available. We only have so many beds that we can fill. There are people out there still looking for places, and we cannot absorb everybody.”

Jonathan reiterated that there need to be resources for the homeless on the west side of the valley—and that city governments valley-wide need to address the situation.

“(East valley cities and organizations) are taking on the burden, and that cannot continue,” he said. … “We believe that to be effective in regard to homeless, this valley needs to implement a regional, holistic approach. We can’t have every city on its own taking everyone (who is homeless) down to the Indio jail, and taking four hours of a deputy’s time. Those people are back out on the street immediately, because there’s no room to put them in jail. We’ve done nothing to stop wasting deputies’ time, and nothing to reduce homelessness. … We’re recommending that all cities adopt the CORP program and any other programs that would be effective in their cities, and that we all work together in that regard.”

I asked Jonathan why Coachella Valley cities seem to have a difficult time working together. He expressed optimism that the cities can and will improve their efforts.

“I can’t comment on the inner workings of individual cities, because I’m not familiar with the individual challenges they are facing. But I will say that the way that we are dealing with homelessness in general nationwide has evolved in a positive way,” he said. “We are learning how to be more effective. That’s what the Coachella Valley Association of Governments is for—to work together and figure out how to address problems that are common to all of us, that can only be solved by working together.

“A homeless person, by definition, is not a resident of Palm Springs or Indio; in fact, they move around. If one city makes it uncomfortable to be in their city, they don’t disappear; they go somewhere else, such as the next city over. Part of the evolution in how to better address homelessness is that we can’t work on this issue individually. We need to work on it together, and that’s what’s happening in our valley.”

Published in Local Issues

Taking care of the Coachella Valley’s homeless is no easy task—but it’s something the people at Martha’s Village and Kitchen in Indio have now been doing, and doing well, for 25 years.

Martha’s Village, as the story goes, began with a $5 donation to feed the homeless 25 years ago. The organization will be celebrating its anniversary on Saturday, March 28.

Martha’s Village and Kitchen has a transitional housing facility that can house 120 people—96 beds for homeless families with children, and 24 beds for single adults. The organization also serves 250,000 hot meals each year to anyone in need; provides child care to parents for children up to 5 years old; and offers educational and career services, as well as health-care and case management.

The organization’s primary goal is to break the cycle of homelessness for residents. During residents’ stay of up to 12 months, they are given the tools to live on their own; Martha’s Village reports a success rate of 90 percent.

Andrea Spirtos, the director of development, explained what happened at Martha’s Village after that $5 donation.

“For 10 years, it continued to grow, because the need persisted to help the homeless, and (help) people for whom food was a challenge. So for those 10 years, it continued as a food kitchen—and then we realized we weren’t helping people as much as we could,” said Spirtos. “The old saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime’—that’s kind of what we do here at Martha’s Village.”

Once clients leave the facility, Martha’s Village continues to follow up to make sure the transition to living on one’s own is smooth.

“We realize that people, when they’re starting out in a job, sometimes that first and last month’s rent is hard to come by, and the security deposit is hard to come by, so we want to make sure they’re successful in their first year,” she said. “We really don’t want to have them to come back and visit us unless they’re volunteers or to donate, so we do have emergency food services, so if they’re challenged in eating, we’d rather they pay the rent and pay the utilities, and (have them) come to us for food.”

The hard work of the 60 staff members, 1,600 volunteers and residents is visible every day at Martha’s Kitchen and Village.

“We have miracles every day,” Spirtos said. “I see it in the eyes of the people who come into the building, and they’re hunched over, and the sparkle has gone out of their eyes. But … six months later, that sparkle has returned, and there’s a lightness in their step.”

Spirtos said some businesses support Martha’s Village and Kitchen by providing jobs to its residents.

“A lot of (places) like McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger … give jobs to some of the people who come through Martha’s and help them get their foot in the door in the employment path,” Spirtos said. “They might start out at the bottom, but that’s where people learn and develop. With time and enthusiasm and good training, they can grow and develop into better jobs—and it happens all the time. People here in the valley are very giving in terms of jobs for people who really want to work, and work hard.”

Martha’s Village and Kitchen does receive some government funding, but donations are crucial in order to keep operations going.

“(Federal funding) only covers about 27 percent of what it takes to keep this building and programs going,” she said. “In the summer months, we provide a cooling shelter, and that’s expensive, with all the water and electricity to keep that air conditioning going. We’re very much in need of donations to keep everything going. We’re also very thankful to FIND Food Bank for helping us keep those food supplies going.”

Their 25-year anniversary celebration, on Saturday, March 28, will be a community-picnic-themed event. DJ Craig Michaels will be providing entertainment; there will also be food vendors, a fashion show and an activities and games area.

As for the next 25 years, Spirtos said she hopes there will be an end to homelessness, both in the Coachella Valley and nationwide.

“I wish so much that there was an end to homelessness and food insecurity,” she said. “We’re a very fortunate country, and we’re a very giving valley, and I would like to see that continue to end that cycle of homelessness for good.

Martha’s Village and Kitchen’s 25th Anniversary Celebration will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, March 28, at 83791 Date Ave., in Indio. For more information, call 760-347-4741, or visit www.marthasvillage.org.

Published in Local Issues

The 2014 holiday season has officially arrived, and while many of us are busily planning schedules around parties and shopping, more and more of our neighbors are facing formidable food and resource shortages.

“Over the last 24 months, we’ve seen the monthly average number of people served meals in our region increase from 80,000 per month to 90,000-plus,” said Chantel Schuering, community relations director for the FIND Food Bank. “We get those numbers directly from each organization that partners with FIND to acquire food resources, and then we aggregate them here.”

Those partner organizations include almost all of the agencies who provide meals on a regular basis to those in need of food assistance. One such partner is The Well in the Desert, based in Palm Springs.

“I wish we had fewer customers, but we don’t, unfortunately,” remarked Arlene Rosenthal, president of the board at The Well. “And around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we get a lot of people who don’t use our services regularly, but at the holidays, find it difficult to provide totally for themselves.”

While the realities of life can be discouraging this time of year—especially to those working to lessen the impact of hunger on a daily basis—the holidays can be a time of happiness and encouragement as well.

“We usually get about 1,500 people on Christmas Day, and these are a combination of the working poor, seniors on fixed incomes and the homeless,” Rosenthal said. “We open the doors at noon, and we have hundreds of people waiting to attend. They walk down this aisle formed by volunteers on each side who are shaking hands and high-fivin’ with the kids and seniors and the homeless. I’ve seen people in tears. It just brings out the best in everybody, and it’s become my favorite event.”

At Martha’s Village and Kitchen in Indio, the demand for holiday assistance increases as well.

“We certainly do see a huge, huge increase of folks coming on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Since they don’t have families or others to go to, they utilize our services,” said K. Magdalena Andrasevits, the president and CEO. “That’s why it’s so important that the community comes together, as they always have. So I always say thank you, thank you, thank you to the community for helping us to do what we can to help our neighbors in need.”

However, Andrasevits points out that hunger and a need for help aren’t just seasonal issues. “I probably echo every other service provider when I say that the need isn’t just at the holiday season; it is year-round.”

For Mike Thompson, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs (which also operates the NestEggg Food Bank), one focus of his organization’s holiday assistance is on people’s emotional and psychological needs.

“What I would like to call attention to is our mental-health program, and specifically, our low-to-no-cost counseling services for older adults,” Thompson said. “The holiday season can be stressful times for those living alone who might feel isolated, so we’d like to highlight this counseling program and make sure that people understand this help is available.”

Thompson also mentioned specific holiday-time events that are being held by The Center. “We’ve got a ‘Paws and Claus’ event where people can bring their pet to see Santa Claus, and that takes place (in December). These events are designed to bring people together.”

How tough is it for assistance organizations to attract needed funds today?

“You know nonprofits are always in need of funding support, whether that be in-kind donations, volunteer time or financial resources,” Thompson said. “As people begin to think about their end-of-the-year tax-giving, we like to remind them that The Center is here, and remind them of the programs we have here that benefit the valley’s LGBT community, and ask that they consider supporting us.”

We asked Schuering of FIND how concerned she and her colleagues are about the increasing demand for services.

“It’s a constant state of concern,” she said. “But when you feed 90,000-plus people a month, no single donation will make or break your effort. When demand goes up, as we’ve seen recently, we’re always trying to connect people with other resources so that food doesn’t have to be the thing they give up in their lives. We do a lot of work connecting people with the food-stamp program, for instance. Some of the crazy rumors people hear are just horrible, and it’s enough to keep them from applying for funds that are set aside for them to use for food.”

In closing, Schuering offered this sobering holiday thought. “Every month, there are tens of thousands of Coachella Valley residents going hungry. Every month. We only have 440,000 residents year-around, so if 90,000 of them are hungry every month, that’s one out of every five of our neighbors. Those are numbers that you cannot ignore.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO HELP:

FIND Food Bank: 760-775-3663; www.findfoodbank.org

The Well in the Desert: 760-327-8577; www.wellinthedesert.org

Martha’s Village and Kitchen: 760-347-4741; marthasvillage.org

LGBT Community Center of the Desert: 760-416-7790; www.thecenterps.org

Published in Local Issues