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By Jeff Pack
Writer 

Homeless for the Holidays

Project T.O.U.C.H. works to obtain more shelter options

 

Last updated 12/22/2018 at 7:06am

Project Touch photos

Project T.O.U.C.H. President and founder Anne Unchacht stands with Homeless Outreach Team deputies and officers, whom she works with every day.

Last week, Valley News witnessed how the city of Temecula's Homeless Outreach Team deputies, along with City Net representatives, worked to help get a woman off the streets.

City Net said they are still working with Kari, the woman from Las Vegas who ended up without a place to live after busing in from the desert, she said, to make contact with her children who are currently living with extended family.

By all accounts, from making first contact with a person living on the streets, to settling her into a hotel room for the night, to continued work with her to put her life and affairs in order, the scenario that unfolded is not the norm for the deputies.

In most cases, folks living on the street don't have the money to pay for their own shelter. Generally, when a person agrees to seek shelter with the help of social workers, they call Project T.O.U.C.H. to provide it.

"Locally, where the rubber meets the road, we have the housing," Project T.O.U.C.H. President and founder Anne Unchacht said. "When you are less a home and housing is kind of that key ingredient in the recipe."

During the winter months through April, Project T.O.U.C.H., which stands for "Together Our Unity Conquers Homelessness," operates a local winter emergency shelter that is open seven days a week and serves a hot dinner and breakfast for hundreds of clients in Temecula and Murrieta.

The organization also runs a transitional housing program with 28 apartments, a four-plex and two homes that serve as shelter for families, single mothers, single fathers, the elderly, veterans, men and women.

As it stands currently, there are no other homeless shelter facilities in operation in southwest Riverside County.

Last year's point-in-time homeless count revealed an increase in the homeless population countywide. The people on the front lines of this issue said they believe that number is going to increase when the next count happens next month.

With limited shelter space available, not only here in the area but countywide, and a homeless population on the rise, it stands to reason that the pressure on organizations like Project T.O.U.C.H. to provide shelter will continue to increase.

Though Umlacht and her organization is working to make that happen, she said the bigger issue in the equation is the lack of affordable housing in the immediate area.

"This has become a crisis with the surge in ranks over the last few years that we've seen," she said. "We have a good, solid economy in that regard, but the unexpected consequence is it's driving the vulnerable in the cities, single mothers and senior citizens to be precise, into homelessness in pretty scary numbers."

She said shared housing is mathematical necessity for a lot of people these days, but when that's not available, those families and senior citizens end up on the streets or living out of their cars.

And for those people on the HUD waiting list for a low-income residence, the wait can be years long.

"And then in HUD housing, they have to go to areas where they will accept vouchers, normally not Temecula or Murrieta at all," Umlacht said. "The reality to utilize a HUD voucher or let's say a county voucher where your maximum rent for mother and child can only be $400 or $500 per month, they usually have to go to Hemet, San Jacinto, Lake Elsinore, where the rents are slightly lower."

To break that down, if a low-earning family is struggling to find affordable housing and they happen to work in Temecula or Murrieta and they qualify for low-income housing, they will likely have to move to an area more than 30 miles away to utilize county or federal vouchers.

That makes transportation an issue and significantly costlier. If they must rely on public transportation, it becomes even more tricky. And then there's the issue of child care.

"It's getting more and more difficult with rents continuing to go up," Umlacht said.

As the rent continues to go up, Umlacht said the number of people, families and seniors finding themselves without a place to live increases also. Finding shelter and ultimately permanent housing is becoming increasingly more difficult.

With the exception of the emergency winter shelter in Temecula for four months of the year, if a homeless person asks for help in a place to sleep for the night, they are likely going to have to be transported to Menifee or the surrounding area to find a roof over their head.

There isn't an emergency shelter in most of the southwest Riverside County cities and, as mentioned above, fewer and fewer affordable housing options available.

"I will just be very candid. I know the cities are meeting a lot. They're coming up with a real strategic plan in the individual cities and collectively," Umlacht said. "But you need beds. Whether emergency beds, transitional beds, you need more housing, and you need it like yesterday. It's almost like a Red Cross type issue; it just doesn't get the instantaneous, emergency coverage that wildfires or floods get.

"It's a tsunami of homelessness, and not just homeless, low-income people not being able to be here anymore," she said.

Umlacht said Project T.O.U.C.H. is always trying to acquire more housing to provide help to those that need it. At the moment, they can't keep up with the demand.

So, the question was asked whether more responsibility should be shouldered by the individual cities.

"I think they are trying. They're getting outside the box now and taking the issue very seriously, more than I've seen in years past," Umlacht said. "The cities and the county and everyone is realizing that they have to address this. Everybody seems to be trying to adjust to a problem that has gotten out of control."

Umlacht said a three-pronged approach is needed, with the immediate need of more emergency beds first and affordable housing last, but she thinks the most important thing they do at Project T.O.U.C.H. is transitional programs.

"And you definitely need more transitional beds. Transitional is important because you don't necessarily want to get a person locked into a prison of poverty," she said. "Not everyone should be in long-term affordable housing; most people naturally want to progress. Some cannot. Some have limitations physically, mentally; I get that. But I don't believe in, just across the board, believe in putting somebody automatically into long-term, low cost, permanent supportive housing.

"You're giving them a poverty mentality. I see people all the time – and I don't know how; it's amazing – learning to survive on $500 or $600 a month. And I want them to get beyond that. It's hard, but in the long run, they are just going to be in a horrific situation if they don't fight that," Umlacht said.

She is quick to point out that there is a part of the homeless community that simply does not want to live within the constraints of a program or receive government assistance.

"There are people that are just very much nonconforming to any kind of rules or structure," she said. "Some of the nights when it's pouring down rain, it is amazing to me that people are willingly staying out there even though they know we're there to help them."

Umlacht said she knows there are no quick fixes to this issue and is grateful for all the support she and her organization are receiving from hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers and donors that support them and the people they serve.

And she is upbeat about her approach making a dent and a difference in the homeless population.

Project T.O.U.C.H. staff members and clients pray before enjoying a meal consisting of food provided by Pechanga Resort Casino at one of the fourplexes the nonprofit owns and operates.

"I am going to tell you what is amazing to me," Umlacht said. "I do partner with the homeless, and some have burned so many bridges and have some emotional wounds and mental health issues. But, when they come in and they start helping other people and I give them responsibilities, saying 'Hey, we're partnering,' and they start doing, I have seen that be the No. 1 positive effect where people can heal emotionally – even mental health issues seem to drop off in some cases, not all cases, their symptoms just kind of disappear.

"It is amazing to watch," she said.

All she can do is move forward, she said.

"This is a huge issue, and we gotta do something," Umlacht said. "I just hope that they move faster."

For more information on Project T.O.U.C.H. and how they are helping the homeless population, call (951) 677-9661 or visit http://dev.projecttouchonline.com.

This is part three 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.

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

 

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