By Marcus Lavergne
The Good Shepherd’s Clothing Closet, a nonprofit, displays an array of clothing on Friday, Aug. 28. The organization works with northern Nevada’s Volunteers of America to provide clothes for those who cannot afford them.
In Reno, Nevada, where growth and development can be seen on a daily basis, people can also be seen sleeping, exposed to the elements, near the Truckee River and in alleyways downtown. In fact, the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless provided data that shows that 112 people were living on the street, along the river, and in parks in January of this year.
Homelessness is a worldwide, well-known ailment. Veterans, working and unemployed adults, children and the mentally ill can all find themselves without stable shelter at any time in their lives, but organizations in northern Nevada are putting forth great efforts to combat one of Washoe County’s largest dilemmas.
One such organization is the Volunteers of America. The VOA is a national, non-profit organization with branches all over the country. Its northern California and northern Nevada division has collaborated with the City of Reno, the City of Sparks, Washoe County and various other nonprofits and programs like Project ReStart and the Good Shepherd’s Clothes Closet to provide a variety of services to homeless families and individuals, as well as help them obtain more permanent housing and stable employment. This collaboration formed the Community Assistance Center.
To put things into greater perspective, more data collected by the RAAH showed that as of Jan. 29 there were 112 adults living on the streets, 784 in transitional housing, 454 in emergency shelters and, perhaps most shockingly, 3,384 children in transitional, or inconsistent housing situations.
The Washoe County Commission produced its own data as well, data regarding services performed by the CAC; services include providing food and clothing, housing in gender-specific shelters, various veteran and mental health services and providing case workers to assist in individual situations and help clients obtain inexpensive housing.
It is estimated that between July 2014 and June 30, 2015, there were over 2,300 individuals that had received some kind of assistance. This statistic included around 147 families with 187 members of that group being between the ages of zero and 17. These numbers are even more impactful when VOA Community Relations and Development Officer Sandy Isham speaks about the number of people aided by the CAC on a daily basis.
“We serve 700 people a day at the CAC,” Isham said. “Volunteers of America has been doing this work for decades. We help 2 million people across the country.”
One of Isham’s main goals is changing the public’s perspective on the homeless community, while also encouraging people to help through volunteer work and fundraising. She believes that if people better understand the multitude of individual situations that can lead to poverty and homelessness, they would be even more willing to help out.
“From what I have learned, personally, you have people here for a host of reasons,” Isham said. “It’s easy, and it’s comfortable to just judge people and say ‘you make poor choices, what’s wrong with you, go get a job.’ Most people think that all homelessness is a job issue, but what most people don’t understand is that most homeless people are children. All of this is so complicated because the needs are so diverse.”
Since there are a vast amount of different situations, the CAC relies heavily on its case workers to help individuals find permanent, affordable housing and jobs. At times those workers deeply involve themselves with their clients.
“There’s a huge difference between the people that are here and the people that aren’t here,” Isham said. “The people who aren’t here have some sort of support system in their life, and if you grow up with that serious lack of support and resources in your life it causes a real detriment. The staff often become like a family to the people that they don’t have or never had.”
Isham also notes that along with helping out individuals and families, the CAC provides services that save the community money. She says that for every dollar spent on their campus, they save $18 by avoiding services from the police, fire department, jail time and foster care.
“Foster care is very expensive,” Isham said. “We’re trying to strengthen families, so that [kids] don’t go into foster care. We quadruple the success rate of families that have an open child protective service case. Not only have we saved the community money in the long run, we’ve potentially saved a family.”
Isham and the rest of the staff rely on a close relationship between each other and other organizations on campus to successfully aid the large number of people in need. Jamie Peek works in the CAC resource center, and has become an integral part of the organization’s development and success in aiding those who need it the most. Although she is new to the job, she has plans to implement more services for the homeless who come for help.
“We’re kind of connecting you with people and how to make relationships,” Peek said. “These aren’t just our clients, they’re everyone’s clients.”
People can help out the Resource Center immensely through volunteer work, fundraising and especially by donating.
“The hygiene and the bus passes are our biggest need,” Jamie said. “It’s like ‘how are [the homeless] gonna get to a job interview that’s 10 miles away?’”
Interestingly enough, these items are sometimes more important than monetary donations, especially in the veteran’s program on site. Angela Sommers is a veteran case worker at the CAC campus.
“Probably before I came and worked here, my biggest visual was the freeway sign that read: ‘homeless veteran,’” Sommers said. “It’s easy to drive by Record Street and look and [label] them as ‘those people’, but every person has their story.”
The VOA works in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out to veterans in need of services. Sommers commented on how much the simple resources really mean to the veterans division of the CAC. Items like socks, belts and hygiene products are greater necessities than money when it comes to taking care of the 20-plus veterans that visit daily.
“We think about charity donations, and how people put together little bags with little soaps and razors which is much appreciated,” Sommers said. “There’s a budget for hygiene products, but most of it’s donations, so don’t think that going and buying $10 worth of razors doesn’t help us tremendously.”
The CAC and its affiliated programs could not operate properly without a secure relationship between the City of Reno, the City of Sparks and Washoe County. Elaine Wiseman is a management analyst for the City of Reno who oversees the contract for the shelters and grants that the city receives for homeless services. She says that maintaining a stable relationship with the CAC is integral to making services function smoothly.
“They’re our contractor to operate pretty much the only homeless shelter in the Reno-Sparks area,” Wiseman said. “We have to continuously work together to keep each other happy.”
The three jurisdictions in northern Nevada head the funding operations involved with providing services and shelter, but even Wiseman says that even more funding is needed to keep up with the needs of the homeless.
“We can always use additional funding,” Wiseman said. “Of course, there are different kinds of needs. We need a permanent support of housing, funding for more case managers to provide support for individuals once people get into housing and also case managers here at the shelter. There are just so many needs.”
Throughout the CAC, there is a strong focus on enrichment and re-education. One vital program is the Re-Engagement Center which takes in students that have dropped out of school. Marlon Lopez, a re-engagement specialist, connects students with schools and job networks. His work usually involves students between the ages of 16 and 19, who he believes have a lack of support at home and within the school district.
“We look at the long-term solutions,” Lopez said. “We work with all students who have left the school district for a variety of reasons. We try to find a way to find a link and engage them in the community.”
To both Lopez and Isham, who are passionate about helping enrich the lives of the less fortunate, it is important to make people realize that nobody deserves to live a destitute life.
“Our mandate is to help people obtain housing, but our mission is to help them become the person they are meant to be,” Isham said. “I don’t think [poverty] should be anyone’s destiny.”
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mlavergne21.