Reynolds Reno ASNE Reynolds HSJ Institute at the University of Nevada-Reno Reno, NV
Issue Date: Thursday, July 19, 2012 Issue: Volume 6, Issue 1 Last Update: Friday, August 17, 2012
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At-a-glance

“Homeless people are always vulnerable on the streets,” says Arthur, 61, a homeless man from Reno. “It’s always possible of being a victim of assault or robbery. Homeless people will steal from other homeless people.” - Nadine Mohline
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What’s the average age of a homeless person?

When this question is asked, images of a drunk guy on the street come to mind. Most think the average age of a homeless person is maybe 25 or 42 or 57.

But, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the average age of a homeless person is nine years old. Families, women, children, old and young are all part of the homeless population and homeless youth is the fastest growing segment of homeless people in the United States today.

Reno is no exception. Sandy Isham, Development Community Relations Officer with Reno’s Volunteer America Family Homeless Shelter said of about 4,000 people who are currently homeless, there are roughly 2,300 hundred homeless children in Reno at any given time.

The homeless are often stereotyped as drunk people with mental illness. While some of these generalizations may be true, Isham said, “There is a lot more to homelessness than many people know. It’s a complex situation and there are many factors that contribute to homelessness and poverty in general. There is not just one single cause.”

Homelessness is not defined as just being on the streets, but it includes anyone who through difficult circumstances is living long term in a camp ground, moving from couch to couch or going from relative to relative because they have lost their home.

It also includes people who are living in weekly motels because they cannot afford a security deposit for a new place. The 5,000 weekly hotel units in Reno often provide transitional housing for people and families moving into or out of unsheltered and homeless situations. These hotels do not provide safe and secure environments for people and they often contribute to the problems of the people who move into them.

Why do people end up Homeless?

People end up homeless for lots of different reasons. Admittedly, some have drinking problems, mental illness or can not hold down a job.

Some homeless people readily admit to having been lazy or to having made dumb life choices like drinking or drugs. And one homeless person said her identity had been stolen, forcing her onto the streets.

But most people are working steady jobs when they end up homeless. Often a significant change in family finances can tip a struggling person or family into homelessness -- this includes job loss, illness, divorce, separation, a car accident or any type of big expense that the family can not possibly afford.

“Two thirds of people in poverty have a job,” Isham said. “They just can’t make ends meet because the job doesn’t pay much. They may be working full time at Target, but it’s very difficult to pay rent and the bills on that income. These people are very vulnerable to be that close to the edge. Any little disruption in their lives and they fall off.”

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Nevada, the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $965. A minimum wage worker in Reno earns an hourly wage of $7.25. In order to afford a two- bedroom apartment, that minimum wage earner must work 117 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or a household must include 2.9 minimum wage earners working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two-bedroom affordable.

That makes people who work in low paying jobs extremely vulnerable to any type of economic stress.

Many homeless people are looking for work, but work is often hard to find.

“It’s hit and miss with odd jobs. I do occasional landscaping --  but it’s hard out there even if you’re working some,” said Arthur, a 61 year old homeless man who recently came to Reno. “You don’t make enough money to get by. What I need is a steady job.”

Arthur has been homeless now for about six months. The longest he was homeless in the past was for a period of 3.5 years.

He used to work in the casinos in Las Vegas as a blackjack dealer. However, he is planning to hitchhike back to Vegas soon and hopes his nephew will be able to get him a job as a greeter at Walmart.

Until then, he will be here on the streets in Reno trying to find safe and dry places to sleep at night.

Arthur has a sign that he has stashed in the bushes near Circus Circus that he will pull out for panhandling when he needs money.

“You can get about $30 to $40 on a good day,” said Arthur. “But my friend has a sign that says ‘STRUGGLING VET -- NEED HELP’ and he makes a lot more money at panhandling than I do.”

A couple days ago Arthur was down to three nickels so, since it was Friday the 13th, his lucky day, he decided to play the slots. And he hit the jackpot with triple sevens. With his $12.00 winnings he bought a drink, some food and a pack of cigarettes.

Typically, though, Arthur does not like to gamble for cash. “I know better than to gamble. I lived in Vegas before and I know there’s no money there,” he said.

Carlos, 46, defies the stereotypes of a homeless person.

“I love culture and art museums and galleries. I love James Patterson and jazz and classical music,” said Carlos.

He’s been here in Reno three days and already he has a library card and is rapidly working his way through two James Patterson novels.

He speaks with a strong, sophisticated vocabulary. It is obvious that he enjoys words and searches for specific words to convey his meaning.

He had a rough childhood and admits to just a high school education from Idaho. But he said, “A priest taught me manners and the finer things in life -- how to eat, etiquette, how to live right and appreciate good things.”

He’s proud of the fact that he will only be homeless for two more weeks. He recently had hip replacement surgery and will soon get his disability check. He’s got a case worker, a doctor and a place to stay.

Once he gets settled in Reno, he is eager to continue his volunteer work.

For over 20 years he has served gay fundraisers and organizations by dressing up in drag. “I do the shoes, the make up, the crown, the whole bit. These fundraisers bring in a lot of money,” he said.

Carlos is a gay man and HIV-positive. He has already connected with the gay community here in Reno and is working with HOPES (HIV Outpatient Program, Education and Services)  a place for people with HIV to get assistance. He wants to stay in Reno to help develop a gay community center and hopes to help launch a gay teen center.

Many homeless people prefer living on the streets to being in the shelter.

“I would never stay in a shelter ever again,” said Carlos.  “I am HIV-positive and I’d be afraid of an infection. Shelters stink and the people in them stink. Plus there’s a lot of drama in the shelters. People are constantly complaining about their problems. And you can’t ever leave stuff unattended.”

Health and cleanliness issues are a frequent complaint the homeless give for not staying in the shelters. Arthur also said, “I don’t like the shelters -- people there have scabies and lice and stuff. I’m a germ-a-phobe. I don’t like to stay there.”

Another homeless woman said she was stabbed twice on two different occasions while staying at a shelter.

For many homeless, life on the street is preferable to being in the shelters. Some simply prefer the independence they have on the streets.

Shelters require people to have a case worker and be active in trying to turn around their lives through job search and possible counseling. Many homeless are not willing to submit to the rules.

Shelters do offer significant hope for many

However, Isham said, “If they are ready to change and take full advantage of the services, spending time in the shelter can have a dramatic impact on their lives.”

Isham said most people that she works with are able to turn their lives around, especially families.

“Often times, people just need help and services and tools to exit out of poverty or a dire life situation,” said Isham. “They can go on to lead productive and sustainable independent lives.”

Isham primarily works with homeless families at the Volunteer America Family Shelter in Reno. The shelter can accommodate up to 27 individual families plus 158 beds for men and 50 beds for women.

Families stay in a small studio apartment type of unit with a private area for the parents, a bunk room for the kids and a tiny kitchenette and private bathroom. Single homeless people live in dorm-style rooms.

About 25% of the families are single moms with kids. However, sometimes it is just dads and their kids and sometimes it is the whole family.

The goal of the family shelter is to keep the family together, help them find a stable income and get the family permanent housing.

Families, like other homeless at the facility, must meet with their case workers on a regular basis. Also, they have access to the shelter staff and Washoe County Services. At least one parent must spend 20 hours each week looking for work if they do not have a job.

In addition to looking for work, parents must attend two mandatory parenting classes each week. Classes are run in conjunction with Washoe County Schools. These parenting classes last 16 weeks.

Adult men and women and families who end up in the homeless shelters have access to many resources to help get their lives back on track. Some of the resources include meals, financial education, clothing assistance, job training, case workers, counseling, early childhood education, play groups and a reengagement center to make sure students  can continue going to class, and keep up with their studies.

According to Isham most people do not come back after being in the shelter, but some have a harder time and need more on-going support.

It all depends on their circumstances and how hard their childhood was. If there was abuse, if they grew up in poverty, or if they have other mental health or addiction issues, then it can be harder for them and they may end up in a persistent  or cyclical homeless situation.

“The average citizen looks at these people and judges them. But they don’t know what it’s like to grow up in foster care or be abused or hear voices from mental illness,” said Isham.

“Sometimes when people are living in desperate circumstances, they make poor choices to end the pain. These people don’t need pity. They need help. There is always hope for each person even those with big addiction problems and mental illness. That’s what keeps me going and what makes this work rewarding. There is always hope.”

Back to the articles list
 
  • Most of Reno's homeless do not live on the streets. Rather, they live in one of the 5,000 weekly rental units that offer temporary shelter for a family or person experiencing difficult circumstances.
    By Nadine Mohline
  • Homeless people congregating near the homeless shelter on Record Street. "Go to Record Street around the middle of the month. That's when people have blown through their disability checks and any assistance money they may have," says Carlos, a 46 year old homeless man from Reno. "That's when people line up for services since they are out of money."
    By Nadine Mohline
  • Homeless people forced out of the shelter while it is sprayed down for bed bugs.
    By Nadine Mohline

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