Worried business owners want solution to rise in homeless as disturbing incidents pile up

It’s a scenario ripe for frustration: Small business owners dependent on foot traffic from tourists, already facing hardships brought on by a pandemic, must also battle an increase in disruptive individuals entering their shops and wreaking havoc; Police, watching an increase in the city’s homeless population, are limited in how they can legally address the situation; and city leaders who have allocated funding to combat homelessness in the city, cannot provide services for some individuals who need more than a place to sleep.

Frustrations were aired Tuesday morning during a Main Street Palm Springs meeting attended by city councilmembers, police, county representatives, and Downtown Palm Springs business owners. It’s likely those frustrations will continue to mount, however, as no clear solution is in place for an issue that has lingered for decades in Palm Springs, but during the past year has grown to near-crisis proportions.

“I’ve been here 23 years and we’ve had a homeless problem the whole time,” said Palm Springs Police Capt. Mike Kovaleff. “Some of these folks we’ve been dealing with since I started here. Sometimes it feels like we are swimming upstream.”

Business owners in Downtown Palm Springs are reporting a rise in run-ins with disruptive individuals at the same time Riverside County is quarantining former prisoners at a local hotel. Police and city leaders say the two may be related, but the issues go far beyond a single county program.

Recent events, however, caused a surge in transients on city streets. Police Chief Bryan Reyes informed the City Council last week that officers conducting interviews with homeless individuals learned that dozens had been released during the past few months from Riverside County jails to a hotel in Palm Springs in order to quarantine from COVID-19 after serving their sentences. Once their quarantines ended, many began living on city streets. Some have been re-arrested, and some were found to be positive with the virus. The news caught city officials by surprise and they demanded answers from county lawmakers.

Those answers came almost immediately after Reyes raised the issue Feb. 25. Greg Rodriguez, government relations and public policy advisor for Riverside County Board of Supervisors Fourth District Supervisor Manuel Perez, promised Tuesday there would be better communication from the county. However, he said the county program will likely continue.

“We’ve had a contract with the hotel since 2004,” he said. “We place individuals there due to infectious disease concerns. It’s a Department of Public Health Program and a contract between the county and a private hotel. If there’s no capacity in Riverside, we place prisoners from Banning and Beaumont in Palm Springs.”

On Tuesday, Kovaleff urged city leaders and business owners not to place all the blame for the city’s rise in homeless on Riverside County.

“We can’t push it all off on this program we recently learned of,” he said. “It’s only part of the problem.”

Police, he said, cannot do much other than respond when they are called to a report of a disturbance. And even if they discover a crime has been committed and remove individuals from the city, many come back.

“Arrests for heroin, crack, and meth are just a Band-Aid,” Kovaleff said. “We don’t just issue a citation. We transport them to Banning or Indio and after a few hours they’re cited and released. It’s a reoccurring pattern. They don’t have a home and live in public view.”

For their part, city leaders say their hands are largely tied as well. They’ve funded programs to address homelessness, and those programs help. But it’s the county, not the city, that has programs designed to help people who may need to overcome addictions or need help with mental health issues. Many of those individuals refuse to seek help.

“Single moms with two kids living in their cars – they want help and we have housed them,” said Councilmember Geoff Kors. “The problem lies with people who don’t want services.

“The county is responsible for helping them. They have health departments funded by the state. The city does not.”

In the meantime, business owners must wait, fearing more run-ins and an impact to their bottom line.

“I’m worried it’s going to drive away tourists,” said Kristen Eldar, owner of The Gold Estate Jewelry Store. “In other cities it’s not as noticeable.”

Those other cities may actually hold part of the solution, Chief Reyes told meeting participants.

“With a hotel used for this county program right in the middle of our downtown district, we’re never going to win,” he said, adding that he plans to make a specific request from the county. “Our hope is they do away with the one downtown and start sending (the former prisoners) to other cities.”

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