By Lisa Morgan

Palm Springs residents were invited to participate in the City of Palm Springs Homelessness Town Hall Meeting on Monday, May 4, and the people responded.  The 5:30 p.m. event, hosted by the City Council Homelessness Subcommittee, comprised of Mayor Steve Pougnet and Councilmember Ginny Foat, held at the Mizell Senior Center was overflowing.  The conference room was standing room only as was the foyer.  Palm Springs Police Chief, Al Franz, and officers were on hand. The goal was to address or “combat” the chronic, homelessness issues facing the City of Palm Springs and to discuss potential solutions.  “We are committed to coming up with solutions to combat homelessness in our city and the entire Coachella Valley,” Mayor Steve Pougnet was quoted in the announcement for the meeting. “I invite everyone with an interest to participate in this important Town Hall Meeting. The people are the city, and we need your feedback.”  That being said, the city was represented by many homeless along with business and homeowners, sitting side by side, each with an opportunity to speak for 3 minutes following a presentation by the panel.  The tone of the meeting was largely compassionate to the plight of the homeless.  Still, residents, business owners, and employees voiced safety concerns and legitimate fear of a criminal and threatening element, some of which are due to mental health or drug issues.

The subcommittee brought up proposals to increase the reach or the ordinance already in place requiring the use of electronically locking shopping carts.  They discussed the underfunded Roy’s Desert Resource Center and its limitations.  The city allocated $130,000 dollars to the facility that serves as an emergency shelter to many. They talked about activities in progress:  Developing additional transitional housing for qualified homeless/formerly homeless; implementing a designated homeless court program, and improving transportation services.  They discussed hiring on city employed liaisons and increasing city funded cleanup programs to combat the trash build up where the homeless camp.  They even discussed enforcing everyone in Palm Springs to show a valid ID, no matter what their age when purchasing alcohol in the city, in order to limit homeless access to their “number one drug of choice.”

Mayor Pougnet interjected that the City had just received word that they should be able to tear down the Magruder Chevrolet building that has been sitting empty on Indian owned land, when one of those at the microphone brought it up as a concern.  This comes after years of complaints from residents and business owners due to the transient community’s use of it, especially after a homeless woman, Denee Salisbury, was found dead on the property.  The demolition will be done at the City’s expense.  There are no contingencies or plans for the City to do anything else with the lot afterward.

Before opening the floor to the community to speak, Ginny Foat informed us that they had looked at programs such as “Housing First” and “100,000 Homes”. Foat stated that they had looked at and came very close to purchasing a piece of property to develop based on these successful programs, but the property became unavailable.  The point was made that much land is Indian owned and not within the City’s reach, and there has been push back from neighborhoods who do not want a homeless community near their own homes.

Here are some of the statements from those in attendance:

“I had the opportunity to speak to the City several years ago.  Things have not gotten better, things have gotten worse.  At one time the City had three mental health facilities, now there are no long-term facilities.  What happens is, and I’m not blaming the officers or police department, but when a person goes manic, they have to take them to Eisenhower, who then takes them to Oasis, who puts them on a 72 hour hold and then takes them to a facility that has an open bed, usually some place like Pasadena or Riverside.  My son is now apparently homeless.  He was just released from a facility that only held him for 3 days.  He is somewhere out there completely manic at the moment.  You talk about $100,000 donated to Roy’s.  Other cities give even less, yet each city has a dog shelter.  Palm Springs has spent .2 million dollars on their no-kill shelter…We seem to care more about animals than we do about humans… ”

“Building a mental care facility within the city limits, is as important as recruiting another store downtown or building another hotel.”

“These fines we get…we can’t pay them.  We’re indigent!  We need a place for disabled veterans.  We have veterans out there getting arrested.  Let me tell you something – I’m scared of snakes, I’m scared of rats, and I’m scared of the police, and I used to work for the Jacksonville police department.  It is bad.  Give us a break.  We aren’t trying to rob anybody.  We’re not drug addicts or alcoholics.  I’m a church man.  I was a pastor before…”

“I’m trying to do the right thing.  I’m trying to pay off my tickets.  I went to court, got them to reduce my fines and even did jail time to pay them off.  I’m one ticket away from being able to get my drivers license back so I can get a job. Then I get woke up by an officer and given another one for sleeping in the wrong place.  It just seems that you just make it harder and harder. But I’ll keep doing the right thing.”

“It’s hard to get a job when your application reads that you live behind a dumpster.”

“They call me ‘Bucket’. I’m disabled. I have epilepsy. I can’t make first and last with my disability check.  No one wants to hire me, I’d scare their customers.    If you’re worried about your grocery carts, how about setting up some lockers so I can keep my stuff safe…I can’t leave it! It’ll be stolen…”

I spoke with Christian Jelmberg, founder of StreetLifeProject, a non-profit organization hoping to inspire and help the homeless to transition from the streets. During his 3 minutes, he stated, “There are enough people in this room to solve homelessness.  Everyone here has a skill that can help, be it writing resumes or knowing how to submit applications to Social Security.”  He also held up a plan – pages of research and solutions, backed up by his own research and observations from time on the streets, under the bridges and in the trees where the homeless find shelter.  “A lot of homeless were talking about the meeting because they want their voice heard. Many of them are very frustrated! They have no place to store their stuff and keep getting pushed around the city. One guy I talked to said he lost his job because he was forced to move his stuff and showed up late for work. The systems for caring for the homeless are not working and need to be fixed.”  Jelmberg like many others, were frustrated in trying to give the subcommittee their solutions to solve homelessness in under 3 minutes.

“Ginny Foat from the Palm Springs City Council said they were going to follow up with me,” stated Christian.  “TheStreetLife project wants to help Roy’s provide adequate service to the homeless. We get calls all the time from people saying they have completed a 90 day program there and need to find a new place to stay. We always ask them about a resume, job prospecting, or any goal setting during that time and the answer is always no. It wasn’t until yesterday’s meeting that I realized it was due to a lack of funding. I believe the StreetLifeProject team can work with Roy’s and help provide these missing services. We will need lots of help from our community and local businesses, but I feel we can help get Roy’s on track.”

To be continued…

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