Late in the evening on Jan. 26, the effort was nearing its end. Supplies of everything from shampoo to Tylenol stood on tables, and eight volunteers were still on hand.
It was the second floor of the Nevadan Hotel, and the event was a sort of census of Reno’s homeless young conducted by the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project. From midnight to midnight, people drawn by leaflets distributed around town had wandered in—54 of them, so far. One more would arrive before midnight.
“Young,” in this case, was defined as 18 to 24, a period when people should be experiencing some of their most productive years but instead find themselves stalled in a crippling economic recession. The leaflets asked anyone who had slept “last night … in a house or apartment with other young people, on the street/outdoors/park/river [or] on roof/in a garage/attic/basement/storage structure, a place in a house not a bedroom (kitchen, couch, bathroom) friend’s house or family members house on a temporary basis, sharing a living space with another family, car/van/camper [or] abandoned building” to appear and be counted.
Earlier in the day, four blocks away, a count had been done on homeless adults. The two populations were treated differently in part because it is simply easier to find older homeless people. They tend to be more fixed and hang out at the same places consistently. As a result, a count held at the homeless shelter functions well for older homeless. Younger homeless are another matter. Counts for young adults were conducted at other sites along with the Nevadan.
“We just don’t know exactly where they hang out all the time or we just go find them and get the information that we need,” said Nevada Youth Empowerment Project director Monica DuPea. The project handled the count of younger homeless people.
“We set up several activities so that we can count homeless youth, so that we can return these numbers [to other agencies] and show that there is, in fact, a problem and that we do need to create some solutions to start supporting our young people on their path to independence.”
She said the homeless young are a moving target to find and help.
“They are a population that is very hidden or invisible,” she continued. “They don’t usually access housing services or social services. They are young people who will sleep on a couch here and there, will camp outside for a while, will go to this city, go to that city. And basically they are just such a transient, moving population that yes, they very well could be downtown one day and then at a friend’s house for a few days and then out of town for a few more days and then camping for a couple days. They’re just moving and surviving.”
One 19-year-old at the downtown municipal bus terminal said he knew about the count but did not attend.
“A friend of mine lets me sleep in a shed kind of building in his family’s backyard,” he said. “He lives with his family, his parents. I come in after they’re in bed, and I have to be gone early in the morning. He and I were friends in high school, and it’s … I hate being in this position in his eyes.”
He said he sometimes arranges with his friend to shower when the family members are not at home.
He said he did not get counted because “I keep hoping that I won’t be in this position long enough to matter.”
DuPea acknowledged that there are probably those who did not appear for the count, either for benign reasons or because they feared arrest—“in fear of their situation becoming worse than what it already is for them.”
Those conducting the count could do little for those who showed up except hand out the supplies that were displayed on the tables and refer them to other agencies. That’s because Reno has few facilities available.
“Unfortunately, this event is not really to provide much outreach to them, but it’s rather to get an accurate count of how many they are,” DuPea said. “And so we did take the opportunity to be able to hand out incentives, including gift cards and hiking kits, clothes, food and resource cards. But as of right now, the option for these homeless youths is to go down to the homeless shelter and receive shelter services from Volunteers of America.”
Some of those in the 18-to-24 group do not use the facilities that do exist. Of those counted, she said, “We have about five that are staying in some sort of a shelter in town. … I did have a young man come in earlier tonight, and I’d asked him if he’d been to the shelter. And he said he’d gone over and stayed about two hours and left. It just really wasn’t comfortable for him.”
The young man at the bus station said he didn’t stay in a shelter “because I have another option. Why use space someone else needs? I have stayed there before, but it was mostly people a lot older than me, and honestly, I don’t want to think of myself as that way permanently. If I do …” His voice dwindled out, and he shrugged.
DuPea said the purpose of gathering the information on the 18-24 population is to use it to try to get facilities tailored to the needs of that group, who are usually job-seekers.
“The count isn’t going to make a big difference right away,” she said. “So their options right now are really to go and use the individual and family shelter services that we have available in town. And then what we hope is that this information will influence future spending decisions so that we can maybe set up some support of transitional housing programs for homeless youth 18 to 24 years old.”
The information will be given to the Reno area Alliance for the Homeless, which writes grant applications for housing assistance that will eventually go to the federal House and Urban Development Department. It will be meshed with the count taken at the shelter the same day and included “in grant applications that could influence future funding and help engage bonus dollars for our community to start providing service that it doesn’t currently provide, which is support of transitional housing to homeless youth that are 18 to 24 not involved with the foster care system.”
The questionnaire is detailed.
“The interview is quite lengthy, and we ask a lot of questions about how many times a day they’re eating, where are they eating, when was the last time they went to school, how they make their money, if they’ve been victims of crime in the streets.”