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What California's homelessness crisis looks like in the resort city of Palm Springs


California's homelessness crisis is usually seen as a problem for the urban centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco. But smaller, less equipped cities are also seeing an increase, and they are struggling to manage growing homeless populations. Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports from the desert city of Palm Springs.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: It's late afternoon in downtown Palm Springs. The sidewalks are full of pedestrians, shoppers, diners. There's an olive oil tasting room and a clothing store with floral dresses and straw hats in the window. In other words, this is a cute resort town, even in this 100-degree weather.

Do you live here in Palm Springs?

CURTIS HAVENS: Ten years, yeah.

SCOTT: Curtis Havens is holding an iced coffee and watching an unhoused, shirtless man rummage through a trash can.

HAVENS: It's heartbreaking, yeah. You know, and I don't know. Yeah, it's a growing problem. Absolutely.

SCOTT: This year, officials with Riverside County, where Palm Springs is, reported an 8% increase in homelessness in the city over last year. The entire county saw a 12% increase. The vast majority of the area's unhoused live outdoors. Near the eastern border of Palm Springs, where golf courses and hotels give way to gas stations and fast-food restaurants, you can see a few tents and RVs from the road scattered around acres of sand, rocks and scrubby plants.

ROBERT SORIA: Oh, man. The only thing you can do here in the desert is just dig a hole deeper and deeper into the ground and kind of make a cave to, like, cool off - try to keep yourself in the shade.

SCOTT: Robert Soria is sitting on a crate inside his four-man tent in that desert wash. He's set up a canvas canopy over the tent, too, to block the sun. He says his criminal record has made it hard for him to find work, which makes it hard to afford housing.

SORIA: You know, it's hard because not all homeless are screw-ups. I didn't give up. You know, I'm still trying, and I'm trying to work out to get - you know, get myself off - you know, off of this. And I did my time in prison. I came out. I want to live again.

SCOTT: There aren't many shelter beds or outreach workers inside Palm Springs. Day-to-day management of the crisis largely falls to the cops, even though Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills says it's not really a law enforcement issue.

ANDY MILLS: This shouldn't be at the police because it's just - it's enormous.

SCOTT: This year, the Palm Springs Police Department started a strategy that involves getting to know unhoused people in the city and referring them to resources when possible. Like other cities, Palm Springs is grasping for ways to bring unhoused people indoors. And Chief Mills says he'd rather a professional service provider take over the outreach and referrals.

MILLS: Do we really want the police with that much power - to be the person who decides whether this person gets housed or not when we don't have the education or the training to do that?

SCOTT: Palm Springs officials are building a new homeless service center. They're working on it with Riverside County officials like Greg Rodriguez, who helps run the county's housing and workforce solutions department.

GREG RODRIGUEZ: It's about a $39 million project - a navigation center with the, you know, sheltering component, full wraparound services and then 80 transitional units on that site as well.

SCOTT: But it's not permanent housing. Rodriguez says the big driver of homelessness in Palm Springs is the same as in cities like LA - a lack of affordable places to live. Over the last two years, Riverside County has had one of the country's fastest growing rental rates. At the same time, while there are a few projects now under construction...

RODRIGUEZ: There hasn't been an affordable housing unit built in the city of Palm Springs in over 12 years.

SCOTT: And until policymakers in Palm Springs and the state capital find more urgent ways to create low-cost housing, this desert city won't be the only one facing a growing homelessness crisis. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Palm Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott