Access Center adds crucial component to helping homeless, but some are steering clear

While elected officials and others celebrated the opening of a homeless services center at the city’s former Boxing Club Thursday, a look at initial data and interviews with members of the homeless community show the facility may be less appealing to them than what it was designed to replace.

Initial use of the facility may not be an indication of future success, however. One service that was unavailable recently in Palm Springs and is now offered at the facility — case management — is crucial, experts say, to helping many homeless individuals find a permanent path off city streets.

Linda Barrack, president and CEO of Martha’s Village and Kitchen, acknowledged Thursday many of the city’s homeless may initially balk at her organization’s approach. But that approach is only part of the solution for a crisis in the city that shows no signs of letting up.

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“It’s going to take a lot of people to solve this problem,” Barrack said. “Martha’s doesn’t assume to be the answer to everything.”

Under a contract with Barrack’s organization, the city opened the doors to the Access Center at 225 S. El Cielo Rd. on August 31. It offers short-term assistance, such as showers and bus passes, but also provides services to help individuals obtain housing and navigate complicated systems that provide them with health care, as well as disability, Social Security, and other benefits.

On Thursday, the city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and representatives from Martha’s. It was a chance to showcase both the facility and the new relationship.

Members of the Palm Springs City Council and staff from the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce assemble hygiene kits Thursday morning at the city’s Access Center that opened August 31. Linda Barrack, president and CEO of Martha’s Village and Kitchen, looks on at far left.

“For many years now in Palm Springs we have needed a professional provider of Martha’s caliber in order to assist our homeless residents,” said Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege during remarks before cutting the ribbon. “We are delighted that this tremendous organization, one of the largest and most respected providers of homeless services in Riverside County, has stepped up to be our partner in this important endeavor.”

The Boxing Club facility was designed to replace some, but not all, of the services offered at a daily drop-in cooling center on South Calle Encilia operated by Well in the Desert. The city elected not to extend Well in the Desert’s permit for the cooling center in June, citing a “hostile relationship” with its leadership and years of outrage expressed by neighbors.

“This has been years in the making to get a provider like Martha’s that gets results,” Holstege said.

Homeless initially wary

Services that Well in the Desert previously offered the homeless community, the way they were offered, and where they were offered appear to be more appealing to some of the hundreds of people who spend their days and nights on the streets of Palm Springs.

A dozen members of the homeless community who spoke to The Post at Baristo Park earlier this week said they would not go to the Access Center because they felt the approach there was too intrusive.

Many said the shuttered Well in the Desert facility, located a block away from the park, offered a convenient chance to escape the summer heat, pick up fresh clothing, and use the bathroom, all in an informal setting. They said the Access Center, located two miles from the park, is too far to travel, and also too formal.

“They just want our name written down so they can count us as a number,” said Deanna, who said she has lived on the streets of Palm Springs for the past 13 years. “Nobody comes down here and talks to us and asks us what we need.”

Board members from Well in the Desert, speaking this week during the Well’s daily meal service at United Methodist Church on East Alejo Road, said they have heard similar feedback from their clients, many of whom are homeless.

Logs kept by Well in the Desert shuttle drivers, provided to The Post, show a decline in the number of clients transported from United Methodist Church to the new Boxing Club facility compared with those shuttled previously between the church and the Well’s South Calle Encilia cooling center.

Well in the Desert representatives said Monday they routinely aided up to 150 different individuals each day at the cooling center. They currently serve at least that many meals during a daily lunch service at United Methodist Church.

Volunteers serve food Monday during a meal service offered by Well in the Desert at United Methodist Church.

Data from the Access Center, provided by the city, shows 105 individual clients have entered the facility since August 31, and that Martha’s case managers provided services to 240 individuals.

The difference in approach is “institutional verses grassroots,” said Well in the Desert President Arlene Rosenthal, adding that there is no wrong way to provide care for individuals experiencing homelessness.

“We do things out of need for people,” she said, “not the need for rules.”

Those rules are crucial, Barrack said Thursday, and are often required to provide the types of services offered at the Access Center. Without the ability to properly identify individuals and enter their details into various databases, Martha’s is unable to act swiftly to help navigate multiple county, state, and federal systems.

“You can turn away a case manager,” Barrack said, in response to trepidation some in the homeless community may feel toward the Access Center and its ability to help them navigate complicated systems. “We want you to be comfortable. But we need your identification.”

“You may not be open to how we run things,” she added. “You may not be open to how our case managers operate. But does it mean you have to come off the street? I’m never going to force you to get a home.”

Rehabilitation needed now

Differing approaches and services aside, most agree what’s needed next is something not currently offered in the city: An addiction treatment center specifically for homeless individuals, many of whom are becoming an increasing danger to themselves and others.

It’s estimated that one-third of the homeless in Palm Springs currently suffer from addiction issues, and the problem is only getting worse. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, has been the cause of an increasing number of deaths in the homeless populations of other cities, as well as Palm Springs.

Palm Springs Police Department Lt. William Hutchinson confirmed Wednesday that fentanyl use is a deadly and growing issue in the city, and not just in the homeless population.

“Fentanyl is a significant problem in Palm Springs,” Hutchinson said, adding that the police and fire departments respond to more than 300 opioid-related overdoses every year in Palm Springs. “In fact, one of our narcotics detectives is solely focused on fentanyl sales cases because they are so prevalent in the community.”

“The issues are not homeless only,” he added. “While they too are impacted by addiction, fentanyl is a serious and very dangerous problem. We are experiencing deaths related to fentanyl use.”

Well in the Desert leaders said fentanyl use, and the dangers it brings, has completely changed the conversation around helping homeless individuals in Palm Springs.

“It’s never been this bad,” said Rosenthal, who has been working with the homeless population in Palm Springs for more than two decades. “Fentanyl and harder drugs have really colored the types of people we have now.”

“Over the years, heroin got bigger and bigger,” she explained. “But fentanyl is huge. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know we need a centralized rehab site so we can get everybody in who wants to rehab.”

How to help: Martha’s Village and Kitchen and Well in the Desert are two of many service organizations attempting to aid the homeless population and address issues of homelessness in Palm Springs and throughout the Coachella Valley. Both depend on volunteers and donations. You can learn more about Martha’s here, and the Well in the Desert here.

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