Sarita Rivera (Source: Lancaster City Alliance)
Sarita Rivera (Source: Lancaster City Alliance)

Since early August, Sarita Rivera has been working with homeless individuals downtown and in surrounding areas of Lancaster city.

Rivera is the Lancaster City Alliance's first outreach specialist, tasked with building trust with "individuals congregating in public places" who are dealing with homelessness, addiction or mental illness.

She serves "as a friendly face to listen and connect people with the support and services they need to safely leave the streets," said Marshall Snively, Lancaster City Alliance president.

Her role marks an expansion of the alliance's team of Ambassadors, who bike and walk designated sections of the city to answer questions and keep an eye out for safety, litter and infrastructure maintenance concerns.

"We're very pleased," Dave Aichele, director of the alliance's Clean & Safe Services, told the Lancaster County commissioners last month. Rivera hit the ground running, getting people into services on her first day, he said. She documents her work on the Ambassadors' data-tracking system.

Lancaster city is underwriting her position at the alliance using money from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant. It's part of a one-year pilot program that includes allocations to increase the city's shelter space and transitional-living units, "in line with our human-centered approach to better support our most vulnerable citizens," Mayor Danene Sorace said in a statement.

Rivera, who speaks fluent Spanish as well as English, works in coordination with other outreach specialists from Lanc Co MyHome, the county homeless coalition. Her role fills a gap, said Jennifer Koppel, the coalition's executive director.

For one thing, the coalition serves the whole county, whereas Rivera can focus exclusively on the city. That was a priority for City Hall.

In addition, because the coalition's outreach program is supported by U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development funding, it must concentrate on people who meet HUD's criteria for homelessness. HUD's definition excludes certain borderline cases, such as someone who usually couch-surfs with friends but occasionally spends a night in the street. Rivera's role will allow her to take a broader approach that includes those individuals, Koppel said.

Sorace said city government is pleased to be able to fund Rivera's position.

"We share the great concern the Lancaster community has expressed for our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” she said.

Tim Stuhldreher