Part I: A growing and regional problem
It’s a problem that the majority of city leaders, law enforcement, community organizations, businesses, and residents have a hard time addressing. In turbulent economic times, there is really no easy solution to San Bernardino’s homeless issue, according to councilwoman Virginia Marquez.
Marquez explained that she views herself as the champion of the homeless demanding that her colleagues on the dais address the issue head on. When law enforcement officials, city staff, and business owners launched a 90-day operation to spruce up the downtown area in early 2014, the first ward representative learned many residents, both young and old, were setting up encampments all around the city’s central area.
“That’s when it came to the forefront that we needed to do something to solve the issues of the homeless,” Marquez said.
Since then, the city has partnered with nonprofit agencies and San Bernardino County officials to curb homelessness, though there have been various hurdles along the way. Complications, such as the lack of resources and varying approaches to dealing with the issue has made assisting displaced individuals a grand task.
The issue is not unique to San Bernardino. However, the city currently has the most people living on the streets, in transitional housing, and in shelters across the County. According to the region’s 2015 ‘Point-in-time’ Homeless Count, approximately 767 people are without a permanent home. This year’s count has yet to be released.
Categorizing the type of homelessness
Leaders like Marquez and San Bernardino City Police Lieutenant Rich Lawhead have identified and categorized two types of homeless populations. There are ‘situational’ homeless–those who have been displaced by dire circumstances–and ‘settled’ homeless, those who have chosen to live on the streets.
Marquez says that initiatives such as Proposition 47 and Assembly Bill 109, which have reduced jail sentences and released inmates early, have contributed to the problem.
“How do you respond to that?” she said in a booming voice. “It has been challenging. These changes have impacted the city.”
Lawhead, who is the watch commander for the downtown area, said he has encountered both sets of homeless. He said the influx of calls from residents and business owners is related to panhandling, nuisance, and loitering. The 23-year veteran of the department said the owners of the Starbucks on 2nd Street are in the process of possibly changing their store hours due to the high traffic of homeless individuals that congregate in the area.
“I am thankful we live in a country where we have the right to be homeless,” said Lawhead. “When those rights get in the way of other people’s right, then there is a problem.”
Nevertheless, contrary to popular belief, Lawhead said the city’s police officers are not aiming to kick out the homeless. He said he He believes it is all about finding a balance and respecting each other’s’ rights.
“We have to protect the rights of the homeless as well,” said Lawhead. “We are ready to offer resources. The problem is getting these people to take advantage of them.”
Lawhead said he believes organizations that feed the homeless near the Feldheym Library or Seccombe Lake Park contribute to the growing debris because they leave behind trash. He encourages the community to support organizations such as the Salvation Army and Central City Lutheran Church that provide shelter and food to those in need.
“Those who are out on the street panhandling don’t do it for food,” Lawhead said. “They usually use the money they receive for illegal stuff. If one wants to really help, they should donate their money to [Central City] Lutheran Church to help keep their shelters running to provide help to those who truly need it.”
An access center’s successes and struggles
In May 2015 a Homeless Access Center began operation at Seccombe Lake Park in downtown San Bernardino. There was contention among the council in regard to having such a place established in the city, let alone at a city park. Yet, a local non-profit agency that operates the center says that significant progress has been made in the past several months.
According to data provided by Mercy House, they have assisted 829 individuals with emergency shelter.
“We are working as hard as we can, as long as we can, to get as many people off the streets in San Bernardino,” said Mercy House Chief Executive Officer Larry Haynes. “We are proud that in a short amount of time we’ve been able to get people off streets.”
Notwithstanding these successes, Haynes is uncertain whether they will continue to be of service to San Bernardino after June 30–the day their contract with the city expires.
“We are hoping our relationship will be extended,” he said. “We will have to wait and see.”
Some obstacles the Mercy House has endured during its time in San Bernardino has been the lack of funding. Last June–in approximately one month– the center used up $200,000 in available funding and ran out of food vouchers, motel vouchers, bus passes, and gas cards.
“In terms of not qualifying for services, a lot of it focuses on the availability of resources at particular times,” Haynes explained.
Additionally, Haynes addressed the issue of dealing with homeless individuals that are a nuisance to the center’s staff. He said the organization’s goal is to never turn anyone away, unless it is an extreme case.
“Occasionally you have people who need help that conduct themselves in a certain way that makes it difficult to provide services for them at that time,” Haynes said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t help them. We deal with people who are frustrated or broken and become frustrated with the agency.”
Haynes said working in the city has been difficult due to contentious politics, but commended the staff who are dedicated to addressing the homeless situation.
“You have some good staff members who truly care about the issues. I just wish they had better support.”
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