Gladys is 63, homeless, blind and wary of the voices coming out of the darkness.
“You can tell something really dramatic happened to her in her life that she has these boundary and trust issues,” said Donald Griffin, a Downtown Reno Partnership ambassador. “Basically, she just wanders around town. She’ll sit on a corner. If she hears my voice she’ll yell to me. If I’m talking to somebody, she’ll call out “Mr. Ambassador!” and you can hear her from a mile away. Maybe she just needs a cup of water, and there’s no water that she can go get on her own. We keep water bottles with us.”
Griffin said Gladys’ housing assistance application is on hold because agencies have shut down in the wake of the COVID crisis. In the morning, an ambassador walks Gladys over to St. Vincent’s Dining Hall for meals, and in the evening one accompanies her to the Reno Events Center—which is serving as an emergency homeless shelter during the pandemic. Each night, Gladys is among the 380 or more people sleeping there, on mats distanced six feet apart and with toilets available. The building is sanitized during the day and no one has been turned away since the facility opened in its new role last month.
Each day by late afternoon, scores of homeless people begin to gather near the Events Center. George, 63, is usually among them. He has a sunburned face accented by a trimmed white mustache. He wears a clean yellow-and-red plaid shirt un-tucked over khakis and carries a bulging white plastic bag. He has a red bandana around his neck and stands six feet away from a man who asks him questions about his sleeping accommodations.
“It’s clean and warm; they take your temperature on the way in,” he said. “There’s people inside to watch over us. They keep things safe. It’s not bad. I’m feeling pretty safe. I’m an old guy, but there’s people in their 70s, 80s in there. They have other medical problems, and they are doing OK. I don’t know how they do it.”
Washoe County Health officials report two homeless people who’ve stayed at the venue have tested positive for the virus and have been treated and quarantined. Other cities have seen much worse: 96 residents in a homeless shelter in San Francisco have tested positive for COVID. And in New York City, at least 33 shelter residents have died from the outbreak, according to the city’s Department of Social Services. People who live on the streets have higher rates of chronic illnesses, and typical homeless shelters are considered close-quarter superhighways for virus transmission.
The ambassadors were created to patrol downtown, help keep the district clean, provide outreach services to the homeless and assist visitors. There are currently 20 on the team, with six to eight on the streets at any time. They now have the added duty of helping protect one of society’s most vulnerable populations during the pandemic.
“We go around downtown, disinfecting as many high-touch areas as we can, like door handles and other metal and plastic surfaces,” said Grant Denton, operations manager for the Downtown Reno Partnership. “There’s not as much social outreach because there aren’t many agencies open right now. But we’re still geared towards the street population.”
While people with a place to live have been disrupted, some even thrown into chaos, by the lock-down, the effect on the homeless population hasn’t been as dramatic. Panhandling is limited when there are no tourists—and few residents—walking the downtown streets. Homeless people who chose to stay in tents no longer have to worry about being displaced unless they are causing a disturbance.
But the big picture hasn’t changed. They have no jobs to loose, no rents to owe, no on-line Zoom cocktail parties to attend. They are not “essential” workers who have to risk their health out of duty or for a paycheck. They go on as before, but with an added horror lurking out of sight.
“Do they get the danger? It changed,” Denton said. “In the beginning, just like the middle class folks, there were some in denial. They said, ‘It’s a hoax; it’s over reacting.’ Some didn’t buy into it. … Then you have the mentally ill folks, that don’t care. This isn’t their gig. It’s not in their wheelhouse. You have to understand, too, that a portion of the population that’s on the streets is developmentally disabled, so some folks take more work.”
But he said some homeless people were ahead of the game and were taking precautions before anyone else. “Information is a difficult thing to get when you don’t have a phone or a TV,” Denton said. “You just hear things from people—mostly different, contradictory things.”
The ambassadors try to get the homeless people to stay at a distance from each other, but that flies in the face of the way they are used to living.
“They are still sharing beers, cigarettes, pipes. That’s the culture,” Griffin said. “They aren’t practicing the six-feet distance. They know it’s going on, and they know that’s what should be happening, but I don’t see it. When they line up at the Events Center the ambassadors try to keep them apart. We chalk lines six feet apart and color-code the groups when they get in line to enter.”
The ambassadors know many of Reno’s homeless people by name and are familiar with some of their histories. In addition to water, facemasks, latex gloves and sanitary wipes, they also hit the pavement armed with empathy. Denton said that nearly all the ambassadors are recovering addicts or former felons and have been homeless themselves. They have to be clean for at least two years before joining the team.
“I was an IV heroin and meth user for nine years. I lived on the streets. I was on the streets real bad the last three years. I was fortunate enough to get a new parole officer that didn’t put up with my bullshit. I spent a year in prison and then got offered rehab. My grandma sent me personal-development books about things like mindfulness, meditation, universal law and exercise books. I had a paradigm shift.”Grant Denton, operations manager for the Downtown Reno Partnership
He has been clean and sober since Dec. 28, 2014. Prior to the ambassador program, Denton worked as a peer recovery specialist and program developer at The Life Change Center; started the Karma Box community initiative; founded Rise and Grind, a fitness program for women in recovery; and worked for the Volunteers of America as an outreach supervisor.
He and other ambassadors have the street credentials and savvy needed to gain the trust of people who rely on suspicion as a survival instinct. Ambassadors who have overcome the most severe challenges in their own lives “are our top performers,” Denton said.
“They have tactical empathy,” he said. “They understand when to dig their heels in, too. It’s good to have human rights until it starts impinging on other people’s rights. This population understands that. One thing about recovery is understanding that you have to give back. It’s all about rules too. If you are trying to get off the street, you can’t play by street rules when you are off the street. Part of giving back is helping people on the street learn to follow rules. When they are ready to do that the next thing is: What do they need? Clothes? Food? We’ll direct them. Part of what keeps us tight is we understand we’re giving back to the community.”
Griffin said the key to doing the job is getting past the walls unsheltered people build around themselves. “Once you can do that you become their eyes and ears, and then they come to you. You have them breaking down. Some of them are dealing with drug issues; some of them are losing their children to Child Protection Services. Some come to you in tears. If you aren’t a people person, this isn’t the job for you.”
Each evening before 7 p.m., Griffin, Denton and other ambassadors walk among the crowd outside the Events Center and ask people to spread out. They ask how they are doing and say hello to familiar faces. Passersby may judge the crowd members based on their clothes and their situation. But those in the trenches with them see what is, what might have been and what still could be.
Griffin said his heart goes out to the frail, elderly folks like Gladys and an 82-year-old woman—also a regular at the Events Center—whose daughter recently died, leaving her homeless and broke. “She’s waiting on everything to come on line again and her paperwork to get going,” he said. “She sits in alleyways, and we walk over to get her food. There are elderly people out there just trying to hold on to the little bit of dignity that they still have. We are the ears that will listen and the shoulders they can lean on in their time of need.”
Griffin said he most worries about the young ones, those in their 20s, who are just learning the ways of the streets.
“We need to help them out,” he said. “They are picking up some nasty habits. You get into that lifestyle, and it’s hard to change the mentality when it’s programmed that this is what life is—this is what your life is going to be.
“I don’t think they see no further than Fourth Street,” he said. “Leave them where they are and they won’t ever see a world beyond Reno.”