Riverside is ramping up its effort to reduce its homeless population.
The city council on Sept. 12 voted unanimously to create the Department of Housing and Human Services, which will focus exclusively on helping all homeless people living in Riverside find a place to live.
The new department will have 55 full-time employees, including six new positions when it’s fully staffed. It began its work three days after receiving the council’s approval.
The agency brings together all of the tools Riverside has to fight homelessness and puts them in one place, according to City Manager Mike Futrell.
“It’s a big step for the city, but it’s the logical next step in what we’ve been doing to end homelessness,” Futrell said during a telephone interview. “By putting all of our resources under one roof, it will help deal with the size and scope of the problem.”
The Department of Housing and Human Services was formed by merging two existing agencies, the Office of Housing and the Office of Homeless Solutions.
The new entity is made up of six divisions: housing authority, Community Development Block Grant management, human services, neighborhood engagement, outreach services, and administration.
Community Development Block Grants are given out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those grants, which will provide some of the new department’s funding, are used to pay for affordable housing, anti-poverty programs, and infrastructure development.
Those grants are administered at the discretion of state and local governments and are subject to very little federal oversight,
While the new department’s divisions will overlap occasionally, the department is s designed to provide quick responses to department and community needs, according to a staff report.
The new department will be led by Michelle Davis, the city’s housing authority manager. Davis will report to Futrell, who became city manager earlier this year.
Futrell suggested folding the Office of Housing and the Office of Homeless Solutions into one agency.
Riverside will spend $10.5 million to establish the new agency: $10 million from several other departments that were going to spend that revenue to fight homelessness, and $500,000 from the city’s general fund.
The money will be spent at the discretion of the new agency, according to the report.
“I don’t think anyone would argue that homelessness is the most pressing and urgent problem facing not just Riverside, but I would argue all of California,” Futrell said during the special council meeting. “The council has addressed this issue diligently, and it has given staff the resources to address the problem.”
That problem is severe, and according to the most recent data available, it’s getting worse, not better.
Riverside’s homeless population in January was 977, according to the annual Point-In-Time County, a nationwide counting of the U.S. homeless population, broken down by cities and counties, sponsored by HUD.
Riverside County’s homeless population was 3,725 during the first month of the year, a 12 percent increase compared with January 2022. The county’s first-time homeless population rose 21 percent year-over-year, its homeless senior population rose six percent, and homeless families with children increased by 12 percent.
Perhaps most disturbingly, homelessness of military veterans in the county rose 31 percent between January 2022 and January of this year.
Those numbers won’t be reduced until Riverside gets more affordable housing, which is why it’s a good idea to merge the offices of housing and homeless solutions.
“Homeless and housing are inextricably linked,” Futrell said. “They are two sides of the same coin. It makes perfect sense to have both of them under one roof.”
Riverside has for several years been aggressive in it effort to reduce homelessness.
In March 2018, the city adopted the “housing first” approach to reducing its homeless problem, which recommends homeless people be placed in housing as quickly as possible. After that, programs like substance abuse counseling and job placement may begin.
That was a reversal of the traditional approach to eliminating homelessness, which was counseling/job placement first, followed by housing.
“We’ve made an important change today that recognizes that you cannot end homelessness without housing,” then-Mayor Rusty Bailey said in a statement announcing the program, which the city council approved 7-0.
One year ago, Riverside adopted the Riverside Homeless Action Plan, a 32-page document that spells out what the city will do to reduce homelessness, starting with building more affordable housing. It also recommends increasing the number of emergency shelters by 25 percent and establishing a rental assistance program for people with no place to live.
During the fiscal year that ended July 1, Riverside’s Housing Authority administered $32.7 million in programs and grants, while its Office of Homeless Solutions distributed $8.8 million.
Some of those grants will help pay for four-year programs.
Despite voting in favor of forming the department, Councilman Jim Perry expressed some reservations about the new entity’s $10.5 million operating budget, and whether or not that can be sustained over time.
“A few weeks ago I said I was reluctant to spend more money on homeless services because there are days when I literally don’t see any improvement,” Perry said. “This is quite a chunk of change we’re talking about, and the problem is at a crisis level now. I don’t know who these people are or where they’re coming from. Our homeless population seems to increase with a number of faces we don’t recognize.”