Katie Rivero lives in a modern one-bedroom trailer tucked in the corner of a Santa Ana public park.
Her home offers a nice view of trees, a playground, and a wide variety of birds. And it includes one other thing that just can’t be beat: free housing.
Rivero is the inaugural “park host” at Thornton Park in Santa Ana where she lives for free in exchange for serving as an emissary of sorts for the area.
“She’s the eyes and ears for our park,” said Susan Grasse, a long-time leader with the local Thornton Park Neighborhood Association.
The city’s pilot park host services program, approved by the City Council in 2020, is an effort to bring a visible city representative who will help monitor the park and report any issues to authorities. If the program works at Thornton, city officials will consider implementing it at other Santa Ana parks.
RELATED: Santa Ana is looking for a host to live at Thornton Park for free
For Rivero, the program is a perfect fit.
Rivero is a single mother who raised her now-adult children while working for 23 years at Ruby’s Diner restaurants as a server as well as in various other positions — until the pandemic hit, and she lost her job last year. When her restaurant closed and COVID-19 upended lives, Rivero said “that was a historic shift for me.”
“It led me to reassess things,” she said.
Rivero, 44, went back to school, studying business administration and accounting online at Santa Ana College. All along, she and her children lived with her parents in her childhood Santa Ana home.
But then her daughter moved out. Her son graduated high school. And after never having lived on her own, she began to daydream about finding her own place.
“Going to school full-time, and with my situation the way it is, I thought I would love to move out, but unless it was free, I couldn’t do it,” Rivero said.
Then, earlier this year, she heard the city was looking for a park host.
“I thought, ‘Wow. This sounds just so perfect for me for where I’m at in my life right now,’” Rivero said. “It’s totally calling my name. This is what I was saying.”
In mid-May, Rivero moved into her new home, which features a king-size bed in the bedroom and a bathroom that is plumbed in “like a real house.” Rivero lives on the property with Nana, a Siberian husky who goes with her on daily walks across the park.
“My job is to see and report, be the constant eyes on the park,” Rivero said, emphasizing she’s not serving as a security officer or “enforcer.”
In her first couple of months on the job, she called the Fire Department once after spotting a small fire in the park’s parking lot after midnight. She’s called the police several times, mostly about people in the parking lot after hours. (Such trespassing has dwindled since she arrived, Rivero said.)
Her trailer is enclosed by an 8-foot-tall fence, and she locks the fence door every night. Rivero said she’s never felt unsafe but had a scary moment her very first night when a stranger outside her enclosed area called out to her She could barely see him in the dark. He told her his friend was assaulted in the park. She called the police.
“The park is a different place at night,” she said.
Rivero said she’s very happy with her volunteer post, which does not include a salary.
“I love it here. It’s awesome. The park is great. The neighborhood is awesome,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood.”
Residents popped in on Saturday, July 9, for a welcoming event, enthusiastic about her arrival as well.
“I want to personally welcome you,” Enrique Adame Jr., of the nearby Laurelhurst neighborhood, told Rivero.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “We needed this for the community.”
Most residents said the park doesn’t have incidents as serious or as frequent as some others in Santa Ana, but still, there’s been occasional graffiti and trespassers hanging out after hours.
“This is a large expanse here,” Grasse said of the 32.8-acre park that includes a small lake, a playground, a basketball court, trails, and baseball fields.
“Sometimes, there are people who want to come here and maybe do things they shouldn’t do that might be even dangerous to themselves. So she can be here,” Grasse said. “And not only that … she’s a positive influence.”
Phil Bacerra, the councilman who represents the area, attended the welcoming event with his black labradoodle, Stanley Pup.
City officials are making some initial tweaks, which include adding more lights to the area where Rivero’s trailer resides and providing a golf cart so she can move around the park more quickly if needed, Bacerra said.
Standing outside her new home and sporting a fluorescent orange and yellow vest, Rivero said this gig was “was written for me.”
“I was (living) paycheck to paycheck, being a single mom, kind of behind the curve,” she said. “And I’m trying to better myself by getting an education and a career. This place is helping me do that.”
For Rivero and her new neighbors, it appears to be a win-win.
“Community is what really drives the neighborhood,” said resident Christine Barker, who moved across the street to Thornton Park last year. “Everyone is out walking their dogs. People look out after each other. There’s that sense of community.”
And now, Rivero is part of that community.