Lake Elsinore opens first housing project for homeless

Darrell Whipple, 70, has a roof over his head after more than five years on the streets. He stands in the doorway of room 12 at The Anchor, a new homeless facility in Lake Elsinore on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

By ALLYSON ESCOBAR | aescobar@scng.com |Press-Enterprise

PUBLISHED: December 31, 2020 at 12:28 p.m. | UPDATED: December 31, 2020 at 2:33 p.m.

In his late 60s, Darrell Whipple found himself homeless and living in a makeshift tent in Lake Elsinore. Originally from Washington state, he had struggled with drugs off and on for most of his life. Years before, he had lost his wife, Lake Elsinore home, his job and started using again.

“It was difficult, but I always knew what I needed to do,” said Whipple, now 70. “In my mind, I thought, I wasn’t done yet. I told myself, to get clean, I have to want it.”

Six months ago, Whipple was approached in a parking lot by members of an Inland Empire-based nonprofit group, the Social Work Action Group, and began taking the steps toward turning his life around.

On Wednesday, Dec. 30, Whipple became one of the first residents at The Anchor — Lake Elsinore’s first facility for short-term crisis housing and services for the homeless on West Graham Avenue.

“I wish I could share how I’m really feeling right now,” Whipple said the morning of his move-in. “It’s, like, I’m excited and nervous, because I do see a road back, and I can’t wait to move on.”

The Anchor, which opened its doors Wednesday, includes 16 units. It can shelter about 20 people, city spokeswoman Nicole Dailey said.

The city bought the property — a former downtown motel and retreat center called House of Siloam — for $2.4 million in July. Officials considered it a major step in addressing the city’s longstanding homelessness problem.

While the number of homeless people has generally fallen since 2017, Dailey said there are about 55 individuals living on the streets of Lake Elsinore, as of the city’s last count over the summer. There are also zero beds and few services for the homeless in that part of southwest Riverside County, Dailey said. The situation leaves many with no choice but to go to shelters, some as far as the Coachella Valley.

Since forming a homeless task force in 2017, Lake Elsinore has used grant money to partner with county programs and non-profit groups such as Social Work Action Group, which offers services and outreach.

In September, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city received $3.1 million through Project Homekey, California’s effort to help local governments purchase hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings and other properties, and convert them into permanent long-term housing for the chronically homeless and those at risk of ending up on the streets. With help from state emergency grants, the city also pitched in around $939,000 to buy and rehabilitate the site.

The $3.8 million project provides short-term crisis housing for the homeless in Lake Elsinore, Wildomar and surrounding Riverside County areas by letting them stay for up to 90 days. Each renovated unit is furnished and has a kitchenette. Amenities include a community room, an office for case management work, a community garden, a pool, a music-and-arts room and a volunteer-run kitchen with a spacious food pantry for donations.

Social services for residents are run by a small staff that includes Social Work Action Group and Riverside County case managers, social workers, a nurse practitioner, occupational therapist and substance-abuse counselor.

“It was important for us to create a place for those living on the streets to feel comfortable and welcomed, a place where they can be proud of, as well as members of our community and city to be proud of,” Dailey said. “The idea is that it’s a place where people will hopefully feel anchored into the idea of their recovery.”

Lake Elsinore also plans to develop the site into the city’s first permanent housing development for low-income individuals and families, hopefully by 2025, Dailey said.

“The Anchor means that Lake Elsinore will be legally allowed to continue its mission of offering a hand up, not a hand out, to homeless persons seeking refuge on public property,” City Councilman Steve Manos said. “This is a significant step toward our ultimate goal of fundamentally eliminating homelessness within our city.”

Volunteers and community groups can also get involved at The Anchor by donating food and serving meals to residents.

Wildomar City Councilwoman Bridgette Moore said volunteering was one way people can help make a difference and begin to “break the cycle of homelessness” in their neighborhood.

Social Work Action Group Executive Monica Sapien said that addressing homelessness is more than just getting people off the streets for a time. It’s building relationships and taking a non-judgmental, human approach to help people get on the pathway to recovery.

Each unit, Sapien said, also includes a journal for residents to reflect on everyday hopes and strengths.

“We can’t continue to walk past someone living behind a store,” Sapien said. “We have to do better to help our people reach their full potential.”

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