Virus Reaction Taken By Some As Opportunity To Drive Homeless Population Out Of The Area

State and local officials are perceiving nearly diametric opportunities in the circumstance that the coronavirus pandemic presents in working toward a solution relating to homelessness issues.
Whereas politicians in Sacramento are seeking to implement policies and action aimed at sheltering those living on the streets in or near the areas in which they are located, local authorities rather are using the exigency of the rapid spread of the virus and the sometimes inexact edicts that have originated with the Centers For Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, from Washington, D.C., or from Sacramento to give the homeless the bum’s rush out of their respective neighborhoods and down the road.
Southern California, in large measure because of its mild winters, has in recent decades become a haven for those who have no place to call home. And while the problem locally is less pronounced than it is in Los Angeles, San Bernardino County has been struggling against, and losing, pervasive homelessness in its urban districts as well as in its more rustic and remote areas.
Annual homeless counts done in January over the years have consistently demonstrated that the highest concentration of those with no roofs over their heads is in the county seat of San Bernardino.
Victorville, Redlands, Rialto, Ontario, Upland, Barstow, Fontana, Highland, Colton and the Town of Yucca Valley, all of which are incorporated municipalities, have likewise consistently had unenviable numbers of those living on their streets. Unincorporated Joshua Tree has had homeless numbers on a par with those places, as well.
Recurrently for decades there have been do-gooders who have taken a run at forging solutions to the plight of those unhoused, and to some limited degree they have made minor inroads against the problem, in some cases placing individuals, families or small numbers of people into living quarters. But overall over the years, the problem has persisted and worsened, as those efforts have been carried out haphazardly and without there being any coordination leading to a transformative correction, and the numbers of the homeless have continued apace on a steady incline.
The reasons for this are myriad. Some individuals want no help or are making lifestyle choices averse to living as most others live. The aforementioned lack of comprehensive coordination is one reason. The sheer numbers of those who must be housed and the expense this represents is another factor. The liability an individual or a group runs in housing or offering help to street people is itself prohibitive, as individuals among the homeless population are in many ways unpredictable and may engage in behaviors that hurt themselves or others. Those well-intention people involved in creating a circumstance where that harm came about – such as creating a shelter where the homeless congregate – may be deemed liable or legally responsible for having done so.
And there are forces of self-interest militating against those who would exercise compassion. It is pointed out that economic reality is brutal, as is life and nature itself, and that a Darwinian principle attends the matter. There are scores, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, indeed millions upon millions of hardworking Americans, ones who wake up early and commute to work five, six and even seven days a week and put in eight or more hours of toil or drudgery, then commute home, all the while paying exorbitant rent or servicing a steep mortgage, never getting far ahead, eking out a hardscrabble existence. To them, generously providing those who do not work and do not share the hardship of pulling their own weight with the fruits of the labor of others is antithetical to the American work and enterprise ethic. Many people find it galling and unconscionable to simply freely hand over to the indolent that which others labor with such intensity to achieve for themselves.
Moreover, residents and officials are wary of the so-called “magnet effect,” by which showing compassion and kindness to the homeless such as offering them housing and services results in further homeless people flocking to that location in hope of receiving similar benefits themselves.
Thus, the problem has perpetuated itself, with those living outside the bounds of dignified society unable to fend for themselves, while those who are perhaps advantaged to help them are generally unwilling to collectively and effectively do so.
Following his 2018 election, California Governor Gavin Newsom signaled his intention to initiate a comprehensive public assistance program aimed at ending homelessness in California, and indeed, there ensued some legislation angled along that line. Nevertheless, more than a year into Newsom’s tenure in office, little tangible in terms of removing the denizens of the streets into respectable quartering had occurred, and the scourge of homelessness remained an ubiquitous and highly visible phenomenon. But with the mushrooming of the coronavirus outbreak, and the very real potential that the harsh conditions the homeless live under, including cold and wet or damp nights in which they are exposed to the elements and will see their physical reserves depleted, their natural immune systems weakened and their ability to resist contracting the disease or fighting it off once the condition has taken hold, Newsom leapfrogged over the delays and called for immediately housing a significant portion of the state’s homeless, not at some distant and indefinite point in some yet-to-be-built facilities, but at once.
Prior to that, however, the governor had mandated certain measures to protect the general population, calling for the cessation of public gatherings and for people to sequester themselves inside.
Those mandates presented, officials who have long wanted to end the homeless problem by inducing the street waifs, urchins and wastrels to just leave, a basis for them to at last act. There was just enough inexactitude in Newsom’s March 12 and March 19 mandates that officials could insist that homeless encampments – examples of the group gatherings Newsom was seeking to prohibit – be broken up and those who populated them scattered. If that meant scattering them into neighboring cities or counties, all the better, those officials figured.
This morning, during a virtual press conference broadcast statewide and attended by the Sentinel, Newsom announced Project Roomkey, which will route millions of dollars the state has earmarked to pay for hotel and motel rooms for that portion of the state’s homeless population considered most vulnerable to the coronavirus. The first phase of Project Roomkey will provide rooms for some 15,000 people, representing ten percent of the state’s estimated 150,000 homeless.
“Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 [coronavirus] and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” said Governor Newsom. “By helping the most vulnerable homeless individuals off the street and into isolation, California can slow the spread of COVID-19 through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected and protect critical health care resources. We’re working hard with our county partners to get these hotels up and running as rapidly as possible.”
According to Newsom, the program is to be 75 percent funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency money, pursuant to California having aggressively moved to become the first state in the nation to secure federal funding available for a homeless support mission in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The program is intended to provide hotel and motel rooms, as well as so-called wraparound supports such as meals, security, and custodial services. County governments will administer the program at the local level.
The state provided counties a list of approximately 900 hotel/motel locations where the homeless would be housed. One of those is the Rodeway Inn located at 2000 Ostrems Way in San Bernardino, proximate to Walmart off the 215 Freeway and University Parkway. That particular Rodeway Inn features over 100 rooms.
In very short order, San Bernardino city officials had reacted to the development.
One issue was that the county, in deference to the consideration that the City of San Bernardino has the most intensive homeless problem countywide, had concentrated much of its early preparations toward accommodating Newsom’s plan in San Bernardino. At least three days ahead of time, San Bernardino County was forewarned that Newsom would go public with the Project Roomkey plan.
By this afternoon, San Bernardino City Manager Teri Ledoux had reacted. She dashed off a letter to San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride, stating, “The city appreciates the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the need to protect our homeless population. Nonetheless, the city has several concerns about the county’s current plan to relocate homeless individuals from across the county to hotels within the city’s incorporated boundaries. As a preliminary measure, it is imperative for the county to engage both executive staff and elected officials of the City of San Bernardino in the planning process of a proposal of this magnitude that will have major short-term and long-term impacts on the city.”
Ledoux continued, “City of San Bernardino representatives must be directly involved in the planning process so that we may provide input on and assistance to the county’s efforts. The concerns of our community must be heard and appropriately addressed. Among our immediate concerns are:
• Health issues related to a large homeless population sheltered in a small geographical area;
• Public safety and law enforcement issues stemming from a concentrated homeless population;
• Availability of and accessibility to health, social, and other governmental services required to sustain the homeless population at a large shelter;
• The economic impacts to the City of San Bernardino, its residents, and businesses, including the possible stigmatization of one of the city’s major business corridors and revenue generators;
• The location of the planned shelters relative to sensitive sites;
• The county’s commitment to ensuring these hotels do not become permanent shelters;
• The county’s commitment to ensuring hotel owners receive necessary resources to protect their properties from long-term damage as a result of this use; and
• Other anticipated and unforeseen short-term and long-term consequences and impacts of establishing a large homeless shelter at a hotel facility.”
Continuing, Ledoux wrote, “As you are aware, the City of San Bernardino is already home to a sizable homeless population. We are prepared and willing to assist the county in its efforts to comply with Centers for Disease Control recommendations to provide shelter options for those homeless individuals already living in the City of San Bernardino. However, our expectation is that other cities in the county accept that same level of responsibility for homeless individuals in their communities, and provide adequate shelter options within their own jurisdictions. The city is willing to permit hotels within the city’s jurisdiction to operate as temporary homeless shelters so long as the city is provided reasonable assurances that: (1) the county will require other jurisdictions do their share; (2) the hotel operators are provided assistance from the county to ensure the properties are not impacted in the long term (e.g., assisting with enforcement and removal prior to the end of temporary tenancy); and (3) the city will be consulted on the appropriate locations for such shelters.”
Also today, San Bernardino City Councilman Henry Nickel put out a community alert with regard to the anticipated placement of homeless into the Rodeway Inn.
Nickel lamented that San Bernardino was being called upon to host far more of the county’s homeless population than other jurisdictions.
“It appears San Bernardino is the only city in the valley selected by the county thus far to house homeless under this program,” he stated.
Nickel indicated he was less concerned about the presence of the homeless while they were in the hotel than what will occur after their stay there has ended.
“These individuals will likely be released into our community and neighborhoods within only a few short weeks following their relocation to this hotel. They will then become our community’s collective responsibility to care for, a burden we simply cannot afford. The City of San Bernardino has little ability to prevent or otherwise determine such relocation.”
Nickel said that CaSonya Thomas, who is the assistant executive officer of the San Bernardino County Human Services Department, and the county board of supervisors “have sole discretion regarding into what cities such homeless are relocated and the respective contracts awarded to hotel operators.” He called upon the city’s residents to contact Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who represents the portion of the county overlaying the west side of San Bernardino in which the Rodeway Inn is located, as well as Curt Hagman, who is currently the chairman of the board of supervisors. Nickel advised residents to urge Gonzales and Hagman “to reconsider this matter as San Bernardino carries nearly 4 times its share of the county’s homeless burden.”
Nickel added, “The county’s conduct constitutes a threat to the public health and safety of our community. We simply cannot afford the county’s apparent discriminatory concentration of homeless in a city already burdened by excessive homelessness, poverty and crime. These homeless individuals deserve to be housed in other cities in the county that have less burdened resources.”
It does not seem the homeless are welcome anywhere in the county.
Officials and residents in various communities throughout the county have adopted policies of dealing harshly with the homeless as a hedge against the magnet effect. Some elements of officialdom have cherry-picked those portions of the governor’s mandate which will serve their underlying goal of driving the homeless out of their communities, while ignoring the elements of Newsom’s directions that call for accommodating them.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is sending a clear message to the county’s homeless population: Move along and leave the county, or things won’t go well for you.
The sheriff’s department, under pressure from county officials, including those in the health department, to make use of its vast manpower in this time of crisis, has interpreted the mandate from above as a call to solve the homeless problem in a way  that is consistent with the tools the department possesses. Deputies justify the heavy-handed tactics as ones necessitated by circumstance.
The homeless tend to congregate in public parks, under freeway bridges, beneath  railroad trestles or in the thick vegetation of freeway landscaping where they can remain out of sight, as well as in riverbeds, abandoned properties and buildings and other locations of opportunity. Oftentimes they share bedding, makeshift tents or cardboard shelters, available cooking and eating utensils, subsisting in close proximity to one another. They do not have the facilities to shower, bathe or wash their hands or engage in even the most basic form of hygiene. Thus, their encampments and very presence represents potential incubation spots for the coronavirus, sheriff’s deputies have concluded, such that Governor Newsom’s March 19 mandate empowers them to use their authority to redress the problem as they see fit.
Street deputies, with the sanction of their superiors in the department, have initiated a program of letting the county’s dispossessed know they are not welcome any longer, so that the decent people of the county who can afford to live with a roof over their heads are no longer subject to the health threat the unsheltered represent.
Indeed, the county is now employing a deputy, described as a giant or a mountain of a man, as a member of its homeless task force, to confront those who appear to be homeless, letting them know that the department will deal with them harshly in a way that will not include housing them in a jail or detention facility. The implication, or in some cases the unequivocal expression, is if those confronted about their loitering, indigence, insalubrity and shiftless presence don’t head south to Riverside County or west to Los Angeles County, they can expect a beating and the loss of what few possessions they have with them. The deputies assigned to the task force inform the homeless they have been put on “proactive” status, which means they are empowered to immediately effect the removal from the county those who can’t or don’t wash their hands, who don’t stop coughing, or won’t stay away from one another.
“Anyone who doesn’t leave gets their ass kicked,” one of the destitute said.
The Sentinel was unable to verify a report that the sheriff’s department was providing transportation to any homeless who would willingly agree to be taken across the county line.
Some county residents expressed approval of the sheriff’s department’s action in confronting the homeless issue, indicating such action was long overdue.
Governor Newsom this morning was reluctant to be drawn into a statement with regard to how individual jurisdictions throughout the state are implementing his policies with regard to dealing with the homeless, including the provision of housing in whatever form, be it placement into brick and mortar structures, trailers or temporary accommodations at motels or hotels.
The state is providing 1,305 trailers to local jurisdictions with the intent that they will be utilized as living quarters for elements of the homeless population.
There were, Newsom said, “some circumstances where we’ve given trailers and they are not being utilized.”
Newsom indicated he was reluctant to push local jurisdictions to take action its officials are resisting. “l cannot cite them against the wills of the local [authorities], unless I want to get the local government to be supportive,” Governor Newsom said.
-Mark Gutglueck

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