Cheetara Piry | Voice News
Homeless encampments besiege the City of San Bernardino as a common fixture and one council member moved forward to clean up a site and strategize a permanent solution for the city.
Improving the Homeless Issue
Damon Alexander, seventh ward city council member, directed funding from the CARES grant to take on the city’s homeless issue. CARES grant funding is part of the more than $339 billion in economic stimulus provided to state and local governments across the country through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—also known as the CARES Act—passed by Congress in March 2020.
The councilman collaborated with Mental Health Systems (MHS) to offer hotel vouchers, mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services for individuals and families. He said consistently visiting these sites before and after removing the encampments will help promote a lasting resolution.
Councilmember Alexander’s first project was to clean up an encampment behind the Regency Theatre off Sterling and Highland Avenues. He also intends to target large parks that constituents frequent where there are homeless encampments.
“We’re working specifically in places in the Seventh Ward and those that touch the border of the Seventh Ward,” Alexander said. “We are making it happen. We’re going to take care of the homeless.”
The number of homeless individuals in San Bernardino is increasing. In 2018, it was enumerated at 2,118 homeless individuals, and by 2020, there were 3,125 with only 735 of those persons sheltered—76 percent of homeless in the county are unsheltered.
Mental Health Services Support
MHS advised and prepared residents of the encampment for the cleanup by offering services including homeless transitional housing and immediate psychiatric services.
Deanna Kivett, MHS program manager, estimated having helped up to 12 individuals at this specific site.
“Everybody here has been offered an opportunity to get off the streets today,” she said, pointing to the site. “There was a male and a female in there, both who have moved on so that we can try to get them shelter. We just started moving all the way down toward Victoria,” she explained. “[T]hey’re cleaning up all of the debris and stuff that’s left behind.”
Since MHS began operation in January they’ve been able to help 54 homeless individuals and continue to follow them until they come to a permanent solution.
“Hopefully you see a slight change in the city,” Kivett said. “We’re building an inventory of master leases where our organization is leasing apartments so that when we get people that have an income, we can partner them up and they can live independently.”
CalTrans and CHP Support Clean-up Effort
The California Department for Transportation (CalTrans) was on the site to assist in cleaning the encampment that is located just opposite of the 210 freeway. They speculated an encampment of this size would take about 30 days to clean.
In order for a site to be approved for removal, there must be a safety issue for either the person experiencing homelessness living in the encampment or the motorist.
According to CalTrans Public Information Officer, Terry Kasinga, the encampment behind the Regal Theatre has been targeted for removal for six months, due to dangerous fire hazards in the area.
Daisy Arrieta, 44, had been homeless for three years and lived in the encampment site for 10 months alongside her fiancé and dog. One of her friend’s makeshift homes was impacted by a fire just a week prior. Although Arrieta said she wanted to relocate to the MHS facility, she was reluctant after they informed her she could not bring her dog.
“They did give us notice, but I just wish we were given more notice,” Arrieta said. “Like my friend only has her blanket now because someone put her place on fire.”
San Bernardino Businesses React
Businesses in the surrounding area are thrilled to hear the encampments are being removed.
“This encampment is rather large–one of the largest ones that we have in our district,” Kasinga said. “It’s been an issue for the surrounding businesses here.”
Daniel Diaz, owner of Blessings Barber Shop, has been in business for three years and the encampments are just behind his place of business. He said the city has a lot of job potential, but businesses trying to do better for themselves see the homeless issue as a hindrance.
“I think this [cleanup] will help us out a lot,” he said. “The homeless issue here is getting out of control.”
He shared how the homeless community that resides behind their building has caused disturbance for their business, and after several failed attempts by the police to help, they were worried there would be no end to the problem.
“I understand people are homeless and they have problems and for some of them it’s not their fault,” he said. “But it gets to a point where they’re using the restroom in front of our business. They’re breaking windows to the businesses right next to us to use the restroom there.”
Several Weeks Following the Project–the Site is Still Clean
Renea Wickman, the council member’s chief-of-staff, reported on Facebook May 29, the efforts to keep the area clean have been successful.
“Weeks after the last day of our first project, it is still clean,” Wickman said in her post. “Councilman Alexander is a man of his word. He is truly tackling the city’s homeless issue.”
“We want to be able to be focused enough to say, ‘Hey, we’re still out there in the community, offering services,” Alexander said. “Even though we’ve cleaned this [encampment] up we want to make sure that we’re consistent.”
Mental Health Service Partnership Contracted for One Year
MHS will routinely visit each site to help mitigate the potential for reoccupying after the cleanup and displacement, however, they are only contracted for one year. Alexander reassured that once their contract is up, it will be reinstated.
“We will be reinitiating and refunding and extending their contract on a year-to-year basis because they are doing an excellent job,” he explained.
Sylvia Reed-Drake, senior vice president of MHS, would like to continue the partnership and will assist in cleaning up the city for as long as they’ve been given the opportunity to do so.
“If we have additional funding, we will keep this program in place,” Reed-Drake said.
Cheetara Piry is a community journalist who found passion in bringing a new voice to writing with the hope of engaging communities and spotlighting local journalism as a way to enact real change.