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Volunteers with the San Diego Sheriff's Mounted Unit help connect the homeless with resources

Posted at 5:37 PM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-16 20:37:18-04

RAMONA, Calif. (KGTV) - Chad Campbell and his horse Maestro can often be seen trotting around Ramona, but it's not always a leisurely ride. The duo often is on patrol for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's Volunteer Mounted Unit.

"It gives me an opportunity to get out with my partner a little more and to give back to the community," he said.

Campbell is one of 13 volunteers in the mounted unit. The volunteers also own their horses. He has been a volunteer for eight years.

"We're not seen as a threat when you're on a horse as much as you might be maybe a deputy walking in," Campbell said.

The mounted unit is used in parades, officer memorials, and other community engagement activities, but the volunteers also patrol the unincorporated areas of San Diego County for homeless camps and fire hazards.

Campbell and Maestro are often in the riverbed just off Ramona's downtown.

"With our ability to be on horseback, we can get into some areas that are fairly remote and because we are sitting about six feet up in the air, we can see a little over the bushes and the hedges," Campbell said.

The goal is education, not enforcement.

"We generally act as eyes and ears for the sheriff’s department so if those individuals at the homeless camps need resources we can point them in the right direction," Campbell said.

On a recent morning in early May, the volunteers ran into a man named Rodney. Rodney says he's been living in his tent for about two years.

"We’re doing some welfare checks. Is it OK if we call in for some assistance to see if they can help you out in any way?" asks Campbell.

Rodney agrees. Two deputies from the department's Homeless Assistance Resource Team, or HART, arrive in minutes.

Rodney is a familiar face, they've been trying to get him into the county's motel voucher program, but a room hasn't been available.

The deputies say convincing people to leave their camps isn't easy.

"They’re leaving a life where obviously, this is very hard for them they know this, this is the evil that they know," Deputy Kyle Babcock said.

Babcock has been with HART since shortly after it was formed two years ago. The team consists of eight deputies and one sergeant. The sheriff's department says the focus of the team is "resources first." HART offers a range of services such as food, housing, job programs, substance abuse counseling and mental health services.

According to the sheriff's department, this year HART has made contact with 914 unsheltered/homeless people, 94 were housed. The team has also participated in dozens of clean-up operations in partnership with the County Department of Public Works.

Rodney, who says he's a retired professional cowboy, says his goal is to get to Arizona.

"Got enough money, just can't afford a place here," he said.

He said the pandemic hit him hard.

"This whole thing has just changed lives," Rodney said. It's unclear whether he's ever gone to a shelter.

"I don’t like being out here at all. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody except my enemies maybe," he said.

If people refuse to leave their tents, the volunteers make sure they're not posing a fire hazard.

”I commend you on keeping a nice tidy camp here, nice and sanitary, no fires," Campbell told Rodney.

The 13 riders and their horses patrol hundreds of miles throughout the county's unincorporated areas.

The sheriff's department is always looking for volunteers. Anyone interested in becoming a member of the Volunteer Mounted Unit can click here.