By Jeff Pack
Writer 

Homeless for the Holidays

City Net workers, deputies help find shelter for homeless woman

 

Last updated 12/17/2018 at 2:58pm

Temecula Homeless Outreach Team deputies Todd Johnson and Rick Donoho climb out of their unmarked Ford Expedition and into the cold and rainy weather to talk with a homeless woman who agreed to meet with them to discuss her options a day earlier.

Behind the deputies, armed with backpacks and clipboards, are City Net program supervisor Tyler Ahtonen and Temecula-area case manager Pamay Ha.

"You two might want to hang back here until we talk to her a little bit to make sure it's OK," Johnson told myself and photographer Shane Gibson. "She knows us but doesn't know these two and having all six of us coming at her might freak her out a little bit."

As they approach "Kari" and her dog sitting on the cold concrete up against a pillar in a picnic area of a Temecula park, they do so with caution. While they are confident that they can handle any confrontation that might spark during their contact with the woman and her dog, "You just never know," Donoho said.

The deputies have good reason to be cautious; it wasn't that long ago that Donoho was involved in a confrontation with a homeless individual with whom he and another deputy were talking. Though Donoho said they had spoken to the man several times before without any problems, the man suddenly turned on them, striking and injuring one of the deputies so severely that he was out of action for more than a month.


Donoho was left to subdue the large, aggressive man on his own, which he did.

He just shakes his head when talking about the incident but is encouraged when he reads a text that the injured deputy will be returning to work on a limited basis the following week.

"What will he be doing on limited duty?" someone asked.

"Whatever we ask him to do," the deputies said laughing. "Mostly paperwork – we're glad he's back."

But today's Outreach Day meeting with Kari went much more smoothly.

The 49-year-old woman and her dog got off a bus from Las Vegas with her dog just a few days ago.

She said she left her abusive husband a year ago, has been on and off the streets for just about year and is hoping to make contact with her children, who are in the care of in-laws in Temecula.

"That is half of the story," Donoho said, pointing out that they must be wary of understanding that there may be much more to the story than what Kari is sharing with them.

"I don't want to reunite her with her kid and find out we're violating a court order," Johnson said.

She has two backpacks in her possession and is wearing a thin jacket with only a beaten-up comforter to provide her warmth.

Her dog, a very sweet – and blind – pit bull mix, is wearing a T-shirt to protect him from the elements, but he's still shivering quite a bit.

As deputies Johnson and Donoho wrap up their conversation with Kari, it is time for Pamay and Ahtonen to take over.

The two young social workers with City Net, an organization contracted by the city of Temecula to help address and end homelessness in the community, kneel next to her to present options to her.

Their first objective is to establish trust with Kari and present the services they have to offer to her – even then, it's not always a clear path.

"Step one is always gauging the client, making sure they feel comfortable speaking with us," Ahtonen said following the interaction. "And even if they say they feel comfortable speaking with us, we have to differentiate is it because law enforcement is with us or because they feel forced or is it because they want to."


Ahtonen and Pamay said next they let the client tell their story and look for what they call "context clues" that can determine whether the person is dealing with barriers such as mental health issues, family disputes and relationships.

"Picking up on those context clues through the narrative and utilizing the services that the county and city has and trying to plug them into things that may assist them," Ahtonen said. "For (Kari) it seems that her children, she keeps mentioning her children, the fact that she wants to see them, trying to break that down and see what that really means. Is she able to, does she have children? We really want to find other outside contacts and piece this puzzle together."


Ahtonen said because Kari is from Nevada, she doesn't have access to city or county services like health care. He said his job is to get her into a program, so she can see a doctor if she has to and being able to access food and possibly mental health help.

With temperatures in the 40s and rain expected throughout the day and night, they wanted get her into someplace warm. In the course of their conversation, she told the social workers that she has money and can pay for a hotel room for one night.

As Kari digs into her pockets, she pulled out crumpled bills of cash and counts it out – while everyone holds their breath.

Ahtonen was asked whether his desire to help the client professionally could be overshadowed by the immediate, human desire to help Kari personally in moments like that.

"It's funny that you should say that. I'm not sure if Pamay was thinking the same way, but I was thinking, 'I have some money in my wallet. I don't want her spending her last few dollars on a motel,'" Ahtonen said. "That really comes with experience and time. When you get into this, you really want to help everybody by giving your own shirt off your own back. The more you dive deeper into homeless services, you realize that you need to look for longer term solutions that are more impactful. There's a thin line between enabling an individual and helping an individual.

"So, for her, utilizing her finances to get a hotel, it's almost like allowing her to choose her priorities with her finances and even that in a sense is kind of a life skill," he said.

Ahtonen said that, while it is difficult to not do so, had he put her up in the motel himself, she may come back and continue to ask for motel stays instead of asking for support services.

Once Kari showed that she had enough money for the room, the deputies, joined now by Sgt. Robert Menchaca, contact a local motel and negotiate.

The only issue is, according to the motel manager, Kari doesn't have identification on her and the deputies don't have access to obtain proof of identification from outside juridictions.

"So far, this is going really well," Johnson said. "Two cops and two strangers don't usually just walk up to someone and have it go that smoothly."

Though the lack of identification is an issue, the team helps Kari gather up her things and loads them into the cars to head to the motel. Once there, with Ahtonen's help, the motel manager agreed to let him use his own identification to secure the room.

"Even if you act a simple advocate for your client, it can move mountains," Ahtonen said. "Because they don't have the social skills and don't know how to speak to the front desk person without getting upset or being offended by being questioned. We can reason for them when they sometimes can't."

That's the last we saw of Kari for the day. With her dog on a leash, she smiled and headed into her room.

The deputies, Ahtonen and Pamay were cautiously optimistic about what's next for Kari.

"You set small goals at first," Ahtonen said. "Our small goal for her is really to get her to come down to the Help Center tomorrow. That's really going to lay the groundwork of expectations moving forward of how much we need to assist her."

He said they start off with small goals and work toward bigger goals of going to social services, going to Social Security, filling out applications for benefits or housing. They determine along the way how much they need be involved or how if they just need to direct her.

They said they have a plan to get Kari a consistent place to live at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, a big shelter facility near Palm Springs.

As far as first contact with an individual living on the streets goes, everyone agreed that the day's interaction with Kari went about a well as it could possible go.

"It's a good one," Ahtonen said. "There's a lot of times when the immediate solution isn't there at that moment, doesn't mean that it's not going to be there as we continue to work with them, but we will have contacts today where the individual isn't interested in shelter or not interested in programs. You have to separate yourself and walk away comfortable with their decision, but it's a hard one."

This article is part two of an ongoing series of stories relating to the homeless issue in southwest Riverside County. In the coming weeks, we will talk to more people working on the front lines of this issue and tell the stories of people living without a home.

Jeff Pack can be reached at jpack@reedermedia.com.

 

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