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.”