A program that will provide lawbreaking homeless people who have drug abuse, mental health, employment and other problems with help as an alternative to incarceration will begin in Riverside County Superior Court in the next several weeks, District Attorney Mike Hestrin said on Thursday, Feb. 17.
The Collaborative Court will include participation from police agencies, the Public Defender’s Office, the Riverside University Health System Behavioral Health Department and other agencies.
The enterprise is the latest effort to address the vexing problem of getting homeless people off of the streets and out of riverbeds, not only to protect them but also to limit the societal cost of the fires, thefts, business disruptions and assaults that have been attributed to them.
While law enforcement and outreach groups have announced success stories, officials also encounter homeless people who would rather be left alone.
The county had 2,884 homeless people, including 729 in shelters, according to an official tally in 2020. The next count is scheduled for Feb. 23.
“We are trying to be compassionate to the homeless, but doing nothing and walking past them and hoping for the best is not compassionate,” Hestrin said in an interview. “We do have to engage them sometimes, and that’s with the criminal justice system. (But) I don’t have any illusions that we are going to arrest and prosecute ourselves out of the homeless problem.”
Hestrin said that legislation such as the voter-approved Prop. 47, which in 2014 reclassified some felony crimes as misdemeanors, has weakened his office’s leverage. Participation in specialty courts for veterans and drug abusers decreased noticeably when defendants began choosing short jail stays over structured, weeks-long programs that result in the reduction or elimination of criminal charges.
But Hestrin said he hopes an approach that tailors assistance to each individual will give those people an incentive to seek help from the Homeless Outreach Mediation and Education program. A plan could consist of medical services, counseling, parenting and drug-recovery classes, life-skills coaching, peer support and case management and last 18 months or longer.
Hestrin said his office will be “aggressive” in using charges to encourage participation but won’t ask police to arrest more people. What leverage his office does have includes jail sentences and persistence.
“We’re going to keep going out there,” he said.
Hestrin said he hopes the Sheriff’s Department will set aside jail beds for homeless people.
“That would be critical to the success,” he said. “Stay at least a couple of days to sober up. Then maybe they can make more rational decisions.”