North County deputies, nurses team up to reach homeless

Jaime Diaz didn’t think the deputies were serious about offering him help when they met him living by a trash bin in south Vista earlier this week.

Then they showed up Wednesday morning, this time with public health nurses and county workers who could link the homeless 32-year-old man with resources, even get the processes started right there on the spot. He was particularly interested in Medi-Cal; he’d been suffering from an infected tooth. He also agreed to get a hepatitis A shot.

The homeless man has been living near a vacant restaurant since it closed a few months back, sometimes surviving on old convenience store sandwiches.

“I’m in need,” the disheveled man said. “Very much.”

Diaz is among the homeless population who could benefit from a team approach in North County. The program is designed to contact chronically homeless people to offer them assistance in obtaining services and support, according to Lt. Glenn Giannantonio of the Vista station.

In recent weeks, he said, sheriff’s stations based in Vista, San Marcos and Encinitas all added Homeless Outreach Teams, teamed with public health nurses as well as county workers who can help homeless people sign up for services such as CalFresh (commonly referred to as food stmps) or Medi-Cal.

“The hope is that with additional support, some of these individuals will be able to improve their living conditions and ultimately obtain permanent housing,” Giannantonio said in an email.

He said the plan to create the teams was in the works before the county’s outbreak of hepatitis A. As of Tuesday, 544 cases of the highly contagious virus had been reported. Twenty people have died, and 372 people had been hospitalized.

County Health and Human Services Agency spokesman Craig Sturak said in an email that when officials determined the hepatitis A outbreak was primarily affecting homeless as well as illicit drug users, they knew traditional health messaging and outreach was not going to see them get vaccinated.

“We needed to get to them, not expect that they would come to a health clinic,” Sturak said.

Homeless Outreach Teams are not new; San Diego police have one, so does Oceanside. The sheriff’s department started one in East County a couple years ago.

The new outreach in North County has seen some success. The Encinitas-based sheriff’s deputies teamed with county nurses earlier and were able to provide vaccines to nine homeless people. Lt. Russell Shimmin of the North Coastal station said some of the people they have encountered were already receiving some form of assistance, but weren’t interested in housing. Others declined services

The Vista team first went out back in September, with a visit to Wildwood Park, where several people agreed to come for a shot and more, according to Deputy Kimberly Odell.

On Wednesday, the new Vista team went out for a third time, handing out hygiene kits, little paper bags with towelettes, hand sanitizer, plastic bags, two bottles of water and information about hepatitis A.

After the visit with Diaz, they tracked down 24-year-old Oscar Lopez, who has been living under a tree, among some rocks near Bobier Drive. The deputies had come across him during their enforcement patrols and they thought he might be a good candidate for help from the outreach team.

“It’s a delicate balance of enforcement and outreach,” said Odell, of the Vista team. “We are trying to give people an opportunity for help, at least as much as we can.”

Lopez talked with the team, and agreed to get information about CalFresh. He declined the hepatitis A shot, telling a reporter that he’d already been vaccinated as a child.

Clutching his guitar, and with his black sweatshirt dotted with yellow plant material, Lopez said he has been living outside for about three weeks.

“Stopped paying my rent — bad habits,” he said. “I’ve been getting a reality check.”

Throughout the morning Wednesday, three deputies took the team to homeless hot spots. They stopped in a central Vista park, where at least one woman came over to get resources information. But she couldn’t get the shot; she was pregnant.

The trip took them to downtown Vista, where 58-year-old Bertina Gnirs, who had been sleeping by a rock, agreed to get the hepatitis A shot.

“People need to get ‘em if it’s on a rampage,” the woman said, adding that she fears needles and had twice before turned down the shot in recent months. After she finished up and was about to head back to the rock, she called out a message:

“Thank you so much,” she said. “It didn’t hurt.”

teri.figueroa@sduniontribune.com

(760) 529-4945

Twitter: @TeriFigueroaUT

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