Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Homeless for the Holidays

HOT deputies, social workers tackle homeless issues together


Last updated 12/6/2018 at 8:32pm

Jeff Pack

Anne Unmacht doesn't like the word "homeless."

The founder and president of Project T.O.U.C.H. said, "There's a difference between being without a home and being a criminal – you can't lump them together. So, this is an issue we are working to overcome."

Since 2003, Unmacht has been on the front lines of a challenge that in recent years has received more and more attention in southwest Riverside County.

According to the Riverside County Homeless Count and Survey Report, which was published May 31, there were 2,316 homeless people counted throughout the county. That number is expected by many experts to increase when the county does its annual count again Jan. 29.

"My educated guess would be, yes, the homeless population is growing," Unmacht said. "People can visually see the increase."

Residents can witness the concern growing on social media channels as well. Any day of the week, flipping through neighborhood groups on social media sites brings the lament from residents that the homeless population is growing and threatening the safety of perceived idyllic neighborhoods from Temecula to Menifee to Lake Elsinore.

They talk about vans from other towns dropping off homeless folks in their town under the cover of darkness. They take photos of people they say are loitering in neighborhood parks and report them to the police departments' non-emergency hotlines.

"People have legitimate concerns," Unmacht said. "We are seeing a rise in criminal activities in some areas."

As is the case with a good bit of social media in this day and age, the homeless population is a hotly debated issue – with voices on both sides of how to manage it. That disagreement hasn't escaped the attention of city officials and politicians who now speak openly and honestly about the issue facing their cities – and it wasn't always the case.

"(The homeless population) is the biggest issue facing Southern California right now," Unmacht said. "The one really positive thing I see right now is serious participation momentum by politicians and town agencies. People are coming together and seem to be really working toward helping with this.

"The cities have stepped up and done a lot lately," Unmacht said.

One of the ways regional communities are working on the issue is through the Regional Homeless Alliance's Responsible Compassion program that was formed by the cities of Temecula, Murrieta, Menifee, Lake Elsinore and Wildomar in 2016.

And one of the most important changes in policy in addressing this issue is the formation of law enforcement Homeless Outreach Teams.

Temecula formed its first Homeless Outreach Team in the summer of 2015 and added two more deputies in 2017 with the passage of Measure S.

The team is responsible for directing homeless individuals to resources to seek housing, employment and medical assistance, investigating violent crimes against the transient population and work closely with various outreach organizations in the community.

"I see a change and a shift with law enforcement; they are making sincere efforts to help in this," Unmacht said. "I can call them and they can call me and we're on a first name basis. That is a positive thing."

In talking with the members of Temecula's HOT team, there is a sense that they know they are making significant progress in managing the city's homeless population.

"Most of what we do is a combination of enforcement and outreach," Deputy Todd Johnson said. "Even when we're doing enforcement, we get the opportunity to change it to an outreach event. Instead of taking them to jail, taking them rehab or to a nonprofit that can help them, then we do that."

According to Johnson, the cooperative interaction that is taking place between law enforcement and organizations such as Project T.O.U.C.H. wasn't always so amicable.

"In the past there's been a suspiciousness between social workers and law enforcement," Johnson said. "Social workers didn't want to work with law enforcement; law enforcement didn't want to work with social workers. The old way was, 'we're not here to be social workers; we're here to take bad people to jail.'"

But as the homeless issue became more and more critical, it became evident to both law enforcement and social workers that cooperation was needed.

"We are the ones on the street all the time and the problem that the social workers have in dealing with a lot of the people that they deal with, they need that law enforcement person there with them, if nothing else, for their own safety," Johnson said. "You're dealing with people that have mental health issues and substance abuse issues, or all of the above."

Both Unmacht and Johnson said they now have a great relationship and work hand in hand in dealing with the issues in front of them.

But Johnson said the job goes beyond dealing with social workers and the homeless population – it extends into the private and political sector as well.

"It's a constant balancing act," he said. "I deal with property managers, business owners, landlords, all of that, and you're trying to keep everybody happy, basically. As well as people who take it upon themselves to go out and work with the homeless, which sometimes doesn't end well."

Johnson said a lot of what he does is educating the public about the rights that the homeless population has and doesn't have.

"A homeless person sitting on a park bench, someone will call and say, 'Well, they shouldn't be there,'" he said. "Well, they have as much right to be there as anyone else. So, we have to educate them that homelessness in and of itself is not a crime."

Johnson said that his team is taking cues from departments in other cities that have had some success in their endeavors, and it is a constant learning process.

"We have a lot of leeway in how we take enforcement action," Deputy Humberto Garcia said. "So, we try to use a little bit of common sense and big picture thinking. If we get a call of a suspicious person, a transient hanging around an area, that's an opportunity for us to make contact with an individual and see what they might need. When we start talking to them, we can determine whether that person if that person is committing a criminal act and we need to take action, or maybe we need to get them connected with some type of resource.

"Obviously, if there's an egregious crime being committed, we take action on that," Garcia said.

Being able to focus on the homeless population as a whole gives the deputies a leg up on understanding situations they encounter on a daily basis and helps them keep tabs on individuals.

"We know the large majority of our homeless population by name," Garcia said. "That also goes to our patrol officers who are really active in our community in going out there getting to know these homeless people more and more. As a whole, Temecula Police Department has been pretty active in dealing with our homeless issue."

Garcia said he joined the team after being selected because, like many officers, he wanted to make a difference.

"We all have our reasons for joining the team," he said. "What kind of drove me to come on this team is that we are trying to solve a problem more than we've been doing it. The way it had been done wasn't working and when I found out what this whole homeless outreach team was doing, I thought it was really interesting."

Sgt. Robert Menchaca supervises four of the team members.

"These guys are well experienced in what they do, they are brave and compassionate," he said. "I think that's what makes a great police officer."

Editor's note; This article is part one of an ongoing series of stories relating to the homeless issue in southwest Riverside County. In the coming weeks, we will talk to more people working on the front lines of this issue and tell the stories of people living without a home.

Jeff Pack can be reached at [email protected]


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