The Riverside City Council approved the Homelessness Action Plan which provides the city with a roadmap to better serve residents experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

After 21 years of living in a homeless encampment in the Santa Ana River bottom, 66-year-old Kevin Johnson and his two dogs have found a place to call home.

Kevin Johnson, 66, stands in the kitchen of his new home. (Courtesy: Riverside Office of Homeless Solutions) Credit: (Courtesy: Riverside Office of Homeless Solutions)

“I was comfortable, but I began to become increasingly more worried about my health as time was passing,” Johnson said in an interview with city workers. “Samantha and the Office of Homeless Solutions found me at the right time; I was ready to get out of there.”

Prior to transitioning into more stable housing, Johnson was one of the hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in the city of Riverside. According to the Riverside County Point-in-Time Count and Survey conducted earlier this year, there were 924 people experiencing homelessness, of which 514 were unsheltered.

“Having this roof over my head is something I’m proud of,” he said. “For once I feel ‘normal,’ and that motivates me to keep going.”

Throughout the county, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 15% since 2020 — from 2,884 to 3,316 — with the city of Riverside representing roughly 28% of that total.

In an effort to address homelessness within the city, the council Tuesday voted to adopt the Homelessness Action Plan. The plan, which has been in the works for the past year, seeks to build upon the work the city is already doing to better serve residents experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

“We’re dedicated to meet people where they are to help them to reach their unique goals and to walk alongside them to do this,” Lorissa Villarreal, the city’s homeless solutions officer, said.

The action plan, as adopted, has six distinct goals: increase housing production with a focus on affordability; availability of services, with a focus on physical and mental health and substance use disorder treatment; prevent homelessness; increase availability and effectiveness of emergency shelter beds; expand public awareness; and coordinate regional infrastructure.

“The plan should be viewed as a living, breathing document that will be updated as needed and will allow us to pivot, when needed, to be amenable to the constantly changing environment around our target population as well as the needs of residents and and all other stakeholders,” Villarreal said.

The plan builds on the outreach work Villarreal’s team is doing both in the field and at the Riverside Access Center, which she said had 730 walk-ins during the month of September.

“This is a great opportunity to engage with folks and for them to participate in our life skills courses that do take place there weekly, so this is something that is positive and that I’m excited about,” she said.

As for outreach, Villarreal said her team was able to get 33 people off the streets and into a shelter last month and provided services to another 259 people.

“That could mean a DMV ride so they could obtain their California ID, maybe they accepted food, maybe they accepted a trip back home,” Villarreal said. “So our outreach team is doing a great job of engaging folks in the field.”

Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were overwhelmingly supportive of the plan and the work Villarreal and her team are doing in the city.

“I’m proud to be a part of a city that is willing to take this on and come up with solutions,” resident Denise Bogan said. “This will by no means be the answer for everybody, but it most certainly will be the answer for some, and we’ve got to start somewhere.”

However, others questioned whether the city should be the one spending this much money to provide services for people experiencing homelessness.

“This is not a city problem, but a regional one, yet we’re bearing the brunt of the problem,” resident Scott Andrews said. “Part of that is we seem to be the only city willing to do anything, and as we build the infrastructure, we get the homeless. 

“If you build it, they will come, or better yet, if we build it, other cities will send them,” he continued. “We need to build the mental health infrastructure using regional funds from those cities that will not build it and build it in the region — not in Riverside.”

Council opinion was also generally positive, with council members Erin Edwards, Clarissa Cervantes and Steve Hemenway speaking in favor of the plan.

“Throughout my time on council, I have observed each one of us on the dais proactively addressing homelessness from a variety of angles…all the while speaking daily, sometimes hourly, with residents and businesses who are begging us to do more,” Edwards, who represents Ward 1, said. “This plan shows our collective commitment to addressing homelessness head on. It holds us accountable. It will show us, as we continue to review it, what we’re doing well, and it will guide us if and when it is time to pivot.”

Council members Jim Perry and Chuck Condor both spoke out against the plan, though they acknowledged the amount of work that went into putting it together.

“This homelessness issue continues to be a crisis, and quite simply, it’s out of control,” Perry said. “The widespread feeling is as we’ve rolled out the welcome mat for the homeless from other communities.”

Perry said in any given week, his office fields countless conversations with constituents about the city’s unhoused population and has talked with people who have decided to move and area businesses that have decided to close. Condor echoed the sentiment.

“I’d say within the last 12 months, there were three businesses that I dealt with, businesses that I spent my money at, businesses that I went to, that have closed up shop and left, because they could not handle the extra costs, the damages and what was going on,” he said. “I believe the plan was done with a lot of love and a lot of hard work, but it does not answer what’s going on out there, and until we start making some damn hard rules that are going to protect our people and our businesses, this is just going to get more and more expensive and it’s gonna get more and more difficult to solve each by each passing year.”

The council ultimately adopted the plan in a 5-2 vote with council members Edwards, Cervantes, Hemenway, Ronaldo Fierro and Gaby Plascencia voting in favor and Perry and Condor voting against.

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