Finding a place to crash

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By Trevor Lilburn

A group gets ready to ‘bed down’ for the night in the dining hall of the Riverside Emergency Shelter (Trevor Lilburn)

By Trevor Lilburn

The amount of homeless in Riverside has reached a staggering number. With this nearly epidemic problem comes a solution from the city. Although it only scratches the surface of the homeless problem, it is the first of many steps towards redeeming our social dilemmas.

There are an estimated 5,000 homeless adults and children in the county of Riverside on any given day. Another 140,000 families are currently in danger of becoming homeless according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In June of 2003, the Riverside City Council approved a plan to house and rehabilitate the homeless in the city. Don Smith was appointed the coordinator for the Riverside Homeless Action Team.

“We currently have two buildings on Massachusetts Avenue and are in the processes of acquiring another building adjacent,” Smith said. “These sites offer emergency room and board, showers, restroom facilities and all the basic necessities. We offer 64 year-round beds and during the cold weather months that number goes up to 136.”

The emergency shelter in downtown Riverside is run by The Path of Life Ministries Church. At 5 p.m. a line of patrons starts to form at the entrance. They are greeted by Tim, the security guard and Victor, the supervisor. Both these men seem to have developed close bonds with many of the people staying there.

“We have 52 men and 30 women currently in the 30-day program here,” Victor said. We process every one that comes in and check for drugs and weapons. For some, this is their first night. For others, they’ve been hear a few months or more. We get them help finding jobs. Whether it be filling out paperwork, finding a social security number, or locating a birth certificate.” Victor said.

The shelter runs with a regular staff of five. A dozen or so volunteers from the church arrive to serve dinner.

“We use the skeleton crew to save money, so that it can be placed into other homeless services. Really, we’re here to give these people hope,” Victor said.

Before dinner is served, a group of men sit playing dominoes. They pass their stories around the table. (All last names have requested to be omitted.)

Ricky had been coming to the shelter since 2004. He is on parole and can’t leave to his home in Florida. As he tells his story of being in prison, a voice down the table chimes in, “California…come on vacation, leave on probation.” Around the rest of the table, heads nod in agreement.

They estimated that 90 percent of the people staying in the shelter were from out of state.

Like Ricky, Ron is also a parole. He had done seven years for drug manufacturing, and had no friends or family in the state to go to when he was released.

He had two years of community college education and is a certified welder. But he says to get a decent welding job, he has to go outside the city, and the bus can’t get him back to the shelter before it closes. He got a job at a closer food processing plant, but is still working his way up to where he can support himself.

His friend Dan is a fellow welder from the island of Hawaii. He had a year-and-a-half of Biology Studies at the state university there, before dropping out to become a pharmacy technician.

Almost half of the people staying at the shelter said they had some form of graduate education, but circumstances or poor choices led them to homelessness.

Ron told stories of hundreds of people living in the riverbeds here in the Inland Empire.

“Because they’re locals, they don’t need the help of the shelter. And most choose to be out living on the streets because they have no responsibility. The government takes care of them and that’s what they’re used to: someone else taking up the slack.”

One of the younger men, Corey, was a foster child. When he turned 18, the government gave him a check for $1,000 and said “good luck.”

“I never had a real role model, so I didn’t know what to do,” Corey said. “I was playing football for the university in Palm Desert, and got caught up in the frat parties. I’ve never been arrested or been addicted to drugs. I have no record of any kind. I just made some poor decisions and had nothing to fall back on.”

The question raised by most of the people was what to do with the homeless when they’re not in the shelters. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the homeless are turned to the streets. That’s when they are in the public’s view. This is something that the local police are apparently trying to remedy.

“They’ll harass you if you get caught sleeping or loitering on a bench or in a park. They run a check to see if they can arrest you, but most times they just want you to leave,” Ron said from previous experiences. “And the public doesn’t mind. They don’t want to see us on their streets. A lot of times we get that ‘stink-eye’ look.”

The city has pushed over $4 million so far to housing and homeless programs, including those for mentally ill and drug abusers. Those are your tax dollars being used locally, not in a far away land or on the war in Iraq. It’s money being used to treat the problems that we literally face here everyday.

You see it when you come to school, when you go to lunch, and every time you use the 14th St exit. They live here, amongst the general population. And they all need your help. You don’t have to go to Africa to “save the children.” Just step outside.

“The county has taken a very proactive approach to homelessness. Some cities are afraid of it. But this is not one of those cities,” Smith concluded.

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