In mid-November 2021 the City of Riverside appointed a new Homeless Solutions Officer. Working in the Office of Homeless Solutions, Dr. Lorissa Villarreal will oversee city outreach services to help reduce and prevent homelessness and seek to expand inclusionary housing.
Villarreal, who has eight years of experience working in the nonprofit sector, spent time working with Los Angeles County incarcerated adults. In her previous roles she focused on making fair and equitable opportunities available through successful community partnerships. (“In doing so, I decided to go back to school to work toward my doctorate in social work at the University of Southern California,” Villarreal said.) Now, she’s using her background to help provide opportunities to people experiencing homelessness.
The Gazette spoke with Villarreal, after she settled into her new position in early December 2021, to learn about her experience assisting vulnerable and economically-disadvantaged populations, the current needs she hopes to tackle and her plans moving forward. Below is our conversation which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Raincross Gazette: So, you’re coming from Los Angeles County, a massive metropolitan area, to Riverside, another economic powerhouse in Southern California. Can you describe the journey that landed you to this point?
Absolutely. I was working for [New Opportunities Organization (NOO)], a nonprofit, and wore many hats. [NOO] opened about nine years ago, and I was one of the first employees onboarded there. We worked with disenfranchised populations, primarily in the Los Angeles county jails including Men’s Central Jail, Twin Towers Correctional Facility and Century Regional Detention Facility. I implemented assessments, policies and procedures for our adult population [to help provide grants] for adult education.
I also wanted to work more closely with [incarcerated adults] and moved to our reentry team the last year and a half that I was with [NOO] as manager of the Prison to Employment (P2E) grants. I worked closely with justice-involved and previously justice-involved individuals (people currently on probation or parole), [along with some] who were released from jail and found themselves without a place to live. So, we started working indirectly with the homeless population [in Los Angeles] by offering support services and subsidized employment opportunities through different community organizations. That’s really how I found myself in the weeds of working with [the unhoused] population. During [the COVID-19 pandemic] I moved out to Riverside, so it made sense for me to apply for this position.
How did this experience prepare you for your new role? And how does it go hand-in-hand with assisting homeless populations and other vulnerable communities seeking transitional housing?
Sure, that’s a great question. I think I was prepared to take on this role, just in my interactions in the community and in addition to that, the different professional development trainings, like trauma-informed care. It’s extremely important in understanding that our unhoused population, and individuals who are experiencing justice involvement, are in fight-or-flight mode a lot of the time; they’re so stressed that their frontal lobes are kind of in a fog. [These] individuals will present as agitated or aggressive, but they’re trying to find shelter, food and warmth. Looking at [Maslow’s] Hierarchy of Needs, we need to be mindful that individuals are facing traumas and depending on how we approach them and build that raport, will decide whether or not an individual will accept services. So, I think working in the jails and in the reentry world kind of helped me to understand that.
When you were first introduced, Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said “ [Riverside] needs a data-driven strategy to reduce the number of people without shelter in our community.” Why are the numbers important when assisting the homeless population and in getting an understanding of what the true needs really are?
It’s really important that we’re looking at the data so that we can see where the gaps are. [For example], the city adopted the Housing First model, [an assistance-based strategy that provides housing to individuals experiencing homelessness], so it’s extremely important that we’re using these evidence-based practices and implementing them into our work with fidelity to ensure that we’re getting those positive outcomes that we’re striving for. Data also shows us where our strengths are. So, when we move forward in creating a strategic plan, we can fall back on the numbers and say: Look, this is what’s working and we want to continue this.
What persisting problems does the city data currently show?
What I’m hearing is the issue of the Santa Ana river bottom. Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson has talked about this before and she’s really passionate about getting this cleaned up. I think that’s something we’ll be focusing on. We’re going to look at a grant that’s coming up so that we can decide how to possibly [use the funds] toward cleanup and different crews to make sure that we’re engaging the populations there. But I feel like we really need to understand what’s holding this problem in place, how it’s become a norm, and try to figure out a way to put a stop to it at the front end which hopefully will springboard us into eradicating homelessness.
To that point, what do you see as some of your biggest challenges now?
It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. We need a wraparound approach that’s going to serve our transitional-age youth and our senior population. It’s a challenge because, like I said, these individuals are facing stress. However, I’ve had an opportunity to meet different departments that are working together to provide these services with [the help of] law enforcement, animal control services, Riverside Code Enforcement and mental health professionals. I witnessed the engagement with the homeless population and a lot of the officers knew these individuals by name and I think that really helped us to get them placed into a shelter or provide a warm handoff to different services that may be needed.
There’s undoubtedly countless organizations and departments that play a role in tackling homelessness. What nonprofits in Riverside do you view as valuable partners in your work moving forward?
We work really closely with Path of Life as well as City Net, a nonprofit equipped with professionals who coordinate strategies to end neighborhood homelessness. They operate our pallet shelters [in the city]. There’s certainly many more nonprofits that I didn’t mention, but it’s ultimately a team effort.
Are there other specific projects your office is working on that you can share?
We are working on our Public Safety and Engagement Teams (PSET), and just trying to create a strategic plan to better understand the community needs so we know where to send out [assistance]. That’s something that we want to work more closely on.
Lastly, what are you most looking forward to in this new position?
I just want to make sure that I am seen right in the city. I want to get a better understanding of the inner workings and the multidisciplinary partnerships, how everybody works so cohesively together and also with our county. So, I’m still in that learning phase and getting my feet wet and there’s so much to learn. I’m a lifelong learner, so I’m excited about that and up for the challenge.