Rising above the mean streets

formerly homeless man works to help others live better lives

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Donald Griffin, right, a Downtown Reno Partnership Ambassador, assists Robert, in wheelchair.

Donald Griffin knows that kindness costs him nothing.

Griffin, a Downtown Reno Partnership Ambassador, is pushing Robert’s wheelchair over to Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada on Fourth Street to help him get some new clothes. Robert had a stroke six years ago and has trouble finding words when he talks. A worker at St. Vincent’s Thrift Shop asks for Robert’s birth date and sizes. Griffin answers for him.

Robert grins. “Thank you,” he says. Griffin taps him on the shoulder. “See, I know you well,” he says. “We’re old friends.” Later, the duo will stop by at the Volunteers of America men’s shelter, where Griffin will make sure Robert is able to shower safely. Then Robert will get a beard trim and a haircut before Griffin gets him to his doctor’s visit. Some of those tasks are above and beyond Griffin’s job description as an Ambassador, but he doesn’t mind.

“If I don’t help him, nobody else is going to do it,” Griffin says. Robert had been a jeweler in California most of his life. After his stroke, he wound up in Reno and lived on the streets before he connected with Project ReStart, which placed him in housing. “He was pretty caked up when I first met him,” Griffin says. “I let him know that showers were available, but he wasn’t interested at first. But after awhile, he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Now he comes to me and asks for help. You spend some time with people and barriers break down.”

Connecting with the streets and the people

Griffin, as he does five days a week, walks a loop around a wide perimeter of downtown Reno. The route takes him from Valley Road in the north to the banks of the Truckee River in the south. He travels up and down East Fourth Street and its side streets. As an outreach specialist for the Ambassador program, his job is to connect with street people, help folks link up to services, and do what he can to make the area safer and cleaner.

It’s Oct. 1 and benefit checks have arrived for a lot of people. “Today we’ll see a lot more intoxication on the street,” Griffin says. “There’s always a high rate of non-emergency calls and lots of wellness checks on the first of a month.”

A man is sprawled on a concrete pad just off Evans Avenue. A shopping cart piled with plastic bags is nearby. Griffin approaches him and speaks to him briefly. “He’s OK,” Griffin says, as he reports the man’s location on his hand-held radio. Nearby on Evans Street, a woman is lying on the sidewalk, her head against a chain link fence. Griffin addresses her by name. “Hey, you doin’ OK?” She looks up, recognizes him, and nods. “OK,” she says. “Thanks for asking.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Donald Griffin walks away after doing a “wellness check” on a man in an alley.

He has already checked on the number of beds available at a substance abuse detox center: three for women and seven for men. “By this afternoon, they will all be occupied,” he predicts.

There are several hundred street people in Reno

He walks along Evans Avenue where someone has spilled molasses on the curbs in an apparent effort to prevent homeless people from sitting on them. “It’s a regular thing,” Griffin says. He passes single men and couples, some of whom are carrying plastic bags or pushing shopping carts. He greets them all. A group of men and women sit in the shade of a low wall. “Hey, Donald,” they say.

He tells them there’s five spots open in a van next week for anyone who wants to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for an identification card. “Hey Roy, you’re a vet, you can go to the VA,” he tells one man. The people in the shade joke with him. He mentions a beer bottle one man has concealed under his jacket. “Can’t fool me,” he says. “I saw that from a block away.” The men laugh.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Donald Griffin walks through ‘Tent City’ behind Greater Nevada Field in Reno.

It’s nearing noon and Griffin heads to Fourth Street and the homeless services campus to catch the lunch crowd. “There’s people on the streets with bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, all kinds of illnesses,” he says. “One minute they’re your best friend, next minute they may take a swing at you. You have to stay aware.”

He passes more people and knows most of them. “Hey, you get those VA papers filled out? You’ve been working on them for some time. You need to get on that,” he says. The man agrees. He bumps elbows with passersby. Many say hello. On Fourth Street, two people are sitting in a doorway of a business. “How ya’ doin’ today?” Griffin asks them. “Hey, please try to make it look like you’re not living here, guys.” The pair looks sheepish. “I know, we’ll be movin,” a man says. They will move, but probably in front of another business. “It’s like playing ping pong,” Griffin says.

The job requires compassion, finesse

He often asks people not to do the things they are doing, but “I can’t be ordering people around. You have to talk to them with respect. They have dignity.” A soft manner alone won’t help much on the streets. “If you’re new in this job, they’ll give you a hard time,” he says. “They’ll ignore you. If you haven’t found your voice yet, they are gonna run all over you. That doesn’t mean you have to be an a-hole or think you’re a police officer, but you’ve got to be able to talk to people. If you’ve got a thin skin, if you can’t take people calling you names, the n-word, saying things about your mom, whatever, this isn’t the job for you.”

“It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or how many books you have read. You can learn things from a book, but if you don’t have the experience, if you don’t have a genuine care for people, I think this would be a hard job to do. You have to build a rapport with people. After awhile, they start coming to you.”

— Donald Griffin, Downtown Reno Partnership Ambassador

Griffin had been homeless himself

Griffin knows street people. For three years, he was where they are now. He had emotional problems and fell into substance abuse. He spent time in jail for disturbing the peace. Then, he says, he got lucky: he got his jaw broken.

“I was eligible for a victims’ response benefit and I got housing,” he says. “I was there about two weeks and I was told I had to do six months in a (rehabilitation) program. I was reluctant to do it, but I wanted to keep my apartment. I started to go to the same gym as my judge. I started getting sober. It was like coming out of a coma. The program gave me my life back.”

He’s been clean and sober the last four years. “I know how it feels to live again,” he says. “I know these people would want that same feeling. So that’s what I come out here to do, help these people get that same feeling.”

PHOTO/M.D. WELCH, depth-of-field.com.: Donald Griffin assists a woman n downtown Reno prior to the pandemic.

It’s lunchtime at St. Vincent’s Dining Room and people are lining up to get “grab-and-go” boxes of hot food. In the street, an evangelist with a bullhorn harangues the crowd. He is talking about the wages of sin. People walk by in silence. Few glance at the preacher, but many say hello to Griffin.

COVID-19 has increased ‘Tent City’s’ population

His next trek is along the Truckee River to “Tent City” behind the Reno Aces ballpark. Some other homeless encampments along the river are piled high with trash and surrounded by a whirlwind of debris. Tent City, however, is relatively neat. Griffin checks in with some of the residents.

“There are maybe about 100 people here,” he says, “and more than another 100 downtown. These are the people who depend on downtown for food and services. There’s another encampment (east) near the Grand Sierra Resort. They don’t really depend on downtown as much and don’t get here as often. They are survivors out there; they call it the End of the World.”

Griffin says that even before he joined the Ambassador program he was inclined to lend people a hand. Working on the streets, among people whose lives have been fragmented, the needs are great and overwhelming. But “if you can help one small piece of a person’s life – direct them to food, a shower, clothes, a place to sleep, to detox, to get medical care – that’s something. That’s all you can do, help one life at a time.”

It’s not a job that elicits a lot of gratitude, but when that happens it’s memorable, Griffin says.

“I’ve had maybe three people I’ve helped into programs come back and say thanks, you helped get my life back” he says. “That goes a long way.”

Every so often he sees a young woman whom he previously helped. She passes him on the street, takes out her door keys, smiles and jingles them.

“She is showing me she still has a place to live and she’s still sober,” Griffin says. “That makes me feel like, hey, we are alive, we still have some humanity left in us. That’s the satisfaction I get. The money is a given, because I’ve got to pay bills. But I think I could do this for free just to see the expressions on the people’s faces.

“That makes me feel like I’ve done something, like there is still a lot of good in humanity.”

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