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08 Aug 2019

Refuge From the Heat: Three New West Valley Overnight Cooling Centers Provide Critical Relief—and Could Lead to More Help for the Homeless

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A woman receives a drink at the Palm Springs shelter. A woman receives a drink at the Palm Springs shelter. Courtesy of the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission

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.

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