Homeless Camp - Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Riverside County’s homeless population increased 15% over the last two years, but efforts to move people off of the streets are gaining ground, an official told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

“We didn’t see a dramatic increase in the number of people who are unsheltered,” Heidi Marshall, director of the county’s Housing, Homelessness Prevention & Workforce Solutions Department, told the board. “Despite the record-breaking rent increases and the lowest vacancy rates that I’ve seen in the last 20 years, we’ve managed to stem the tide of families becoming homeless.”

Marshall gave a brief presentation on the results of the point-in-time homeless count completed at the end of February.

An estimated 3,316 people were found to be chronically homeless countywide. That compares to 2,884 in the winter of 2020, when the previous full homeless census was taken. The count in January 2021 was severely curtailed because of the coronavirus public health lockdowns, and volunteers at that time mainly focused on visiting shelters to gauge the homeless population.

Marshall noted that while there has been an overall increase in homelessness, the silver lining in the current data is that the “sheltered” homeless population is increasing, while the “unsheltered” is dropping. However, the sheltered figure is still well above the unsheltered — 1,980 versus 1,336.

“Our work is not done,” she said. “We’re not anywhere near the finish line.”

Almost $200 million in federal COVID relief funds have been spent directly on programs intended to reduce risks of homelessness, most prominently rental assistance, according to Marshall.

She said that, going forward, the intent is to work with municipalities throughout the county in addressing “gaps in services” that are vital to people with “high barriers,” including transients with substance abuse and mental disorders, whose placement in transitional living quarters can be the most challenging.

The survey results indicated that Riverside had the highest number of known homeless residents — 514, followed by Palm Springs at 222, Corona at 110 and Indio at 105.

“The numbers seem very low,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said, questioning whether the survey reflected real-world data. “It’s hard to reach everyone at that one point in time. I mean, you see a homeless encampment, and when you go there, there’s nobody there.”

The main count in February lasted one day, while there were smaller-scale visits to locations on two other days.

Roughly 625 volunteers from faith-based groups, churches, civic affairs organizations, along with college students and many others took part in the effort. Additionally, there were employees from the Department of Public Social Services, public safety and other agencies involved.

They engaged people living in cars, under bridges, in transient encampments, homeless shelters and other places throughout the county.

“In addition to the interviews, volunteers offered residents experiencing homelessness to services like housing, animal services, medical services or help obtaining documents,” according to an Executive Office statement. “As a result, 49% of those interviewed during the general count signed up to receive follow-up services.”

Data are used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine how to distribute federal homeless relief funding, and by policy makers in determining the scope of homelessness nationwide — including what’s working, and what’s not.

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