Natalie Handler, a Reno community activist who has been assisting homeless people over the last year, has some advice for public officials who want to do the same thing: Listen.
“That’s what the work is, just talking to unsheltered people,” she said. “They need an ear. That’s how you learn to help them, just listening to them… One size doesn’t fit all.”
Handler and other activists are part of an informal network that assists homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are plenty of opportunities to help. Since March, the number of unsheltered couples and individuals has greatly increased, based on proliferation of tents and group camps that have sprung up throughout the Truckee Meadows.
Tents and tarps
Overnight, camps and clusters of makeshift shelters pop up like mini-mining boomtowns. Tents and tarps, clothes lines and piles of refuse, hug the banks of the Truckee River from downtown Reno to the Sparks border. The sites appear under highway overpasses, in parks, along railroad rights-of-way and on open ground in industrial areas.
How many people are camping out this winter is anybody’s guess. The Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless, conducted an annual Point-in-Time census of homeless people weeks ago, but those numbers haven’t yet been released.
The previous Point-in-Time count, taken over a 24-hour period in January 2020, totaled 1,227 individuals facing housing crises, including 514 in homeless shelters and 459 people living on the streets. In 2019, the federally-mandated survey showed 226 unsheltered people in the Reno area. It’s a snapshot in time that is always an undercount, due to the difficulty of tracking down folks in that population.
Focus on the humans
Handler said statistics are useful, but they aren’t the key to creating solutions to homelessness.
“Those who set policy don’t go out there and talk to (unsheltered) people and see what’s happening and what they need,” she said. “When you sit in an office and compile data, you see numbers, not people, and come up with solutions based on that.”
The Community Homeless Advisory Board, for example, is made up of elected officials. “They need people who are actually doing the work, the mental health professional social workers, and people from groups like RISE, which does great work helping and sheltering women and families, and ACTIONN. People far removed from the realities of the problem are making the decisions; that’s crazy to me.”
Taking it to the streets
When Handler and her friends began visiting camps and helping residents, she said many others got involved in the effort.
“There are so many people in our community right now who are very alert and willing to help,” she said. “That feels hopeful to me. They are taking it upon themselves to support people where they are at. We need to hold public officials accountable. They can talk in circles all they want but they are not outsmarting us… Many times they are doing the wrong things.”
For example, Handler said, officials often stress the availability of support services, but those often are overwhelmed. In many cases, they present a minefield of obstacles that clients must navigate. Arbitrary requirements get in the way of helping people, she said.
Roadblocks to services
“I know a gentleman who was living in his car who had a part-time job,” she said. “He had no criminal record and no substance abuse problems. But he couldn’t get into transitional housing because he needed 30-days notice of income. The rent was $400, month-to-month, and the room is the size of a prison cell, and yet there are barriers like that. We need to end those.”
The Truckee Meadows lacks a shelter that will admit unmarried couples and only Our Place, the women’s and family shelter, will take pets. There is little if any storage space in men’s shelters available for a client’s possessions and so they abandon their property. Then, they often wind up back on the streets without the things they need to survive.
In addition, she said, homeless people have told her that they’ve had bad experiences in shelters and won’t go back. “Often they are not secure, not safe or sane spaces.” She mentioned the example of a security guard at a Reno homeless shelter who used pepper spray on a disabled man who was slow getting out of bed. In June, Reno police officers harassed homeless people during a sweep and cleanup of a Wells Avenue camp, as revealed by videos from their body cameras.
Homes, not handcuffs
Handler questioned why law enforcement agencies take the lead in dealing with homeless people and their encampments. The Sparks Police department created a special unit that is tasked with connecting unsheltered people with services and shelters before running them off their campsites. That approach that is slated to be a model for other local governments.
But she said social workers and advocates should be doing that job instead of people who the campers associate with handcuffs and jail, even if the officers are well-meaning. The culture of police agencies, in which cops see themselves as warriors rather than guardians, also gets in the way of helping vulnerable populations.
The Gateway Park sweep
Handler said when she and other volunteers came to help homeless people who were being evicted Feb. 17 from an encampment in Gateway Park in Sparks, officers were “pretty defensive and hostile right out of the gate. (The supervising officer) said he didn’t need to speak with us, that the sweep was happening and he didn’t want us there.”
The activists stayed. They helped many of the campers relocate and comforted some who were traumatized over the loss of their camps. During the sweep, Melody Allen, 53, who had been camped at the park with her boyfriend, Matt, since November was arrested when she was reluctant to leave the area. She was cited for obstructing officers.
The volunteers chipped in and got her out of jail. They paid for a motel room for Melody and Matt.
Bonnie H., who also had been camped at the park for three months, sat amid a pile of campers’ possessions stacked on an adjacent property and declined any offers of help with services or assistance in moving elsewhere. For the two days prior to the sweep, Bonnie had been animated and energetic while cleaning up the area. As she watched the heavy equipment crush and load items left at the camp, she huddled under blankets and mourned the loss of her living space.
Fight, flight or freeze
“Bonnie didn’t want to leave,” Handler said. “She was still sitting there the next day. When people are living highly traumatized lives it makes it difficult for them to advocate for themselves if they are getting pushed around. The options are flight, fight or freeze; she was in freeze mode.”
Bonnie eventually accepted a spot on the waiting list for Our Place, which is run by RISE She is staying in a motel room until a spot at the shelter opens up, Handler said.
The volunteers came to Gateway Park, she said, because “these sweeps are inhumane, cruel and provide absolutely zero solutions. In fact, they cause more harm and trauma and increase the danger to people’s lives, which is exactly what we saw at the end of the day.” The efforts also are a waste of taxpayer dollars because those involved are just moving a problem, not solving it, Handler said..
The Cares Campus
Officials often cite the planned April opening of the new $16.8 million Reno Cares Campus as a game-changer for dealing with the homeless dilemma. Handler said the temporary tent shelter there has mats on the floor and uses space heaters. “You can see your breath at night,” she said. “Is that the best we can do? I would rather live in a tent on the streets.”
When the campus opens, the main shelter will be in a larger tent, not a building, she said. That’s just “a bigger version of what they already have. If (the new shelter) runs the same way the shelters are run now, people aren’t going to utilize it, either. Build whatever you want, but as long as you’re not changing the system into one that provides services for a majority of people’s needs, nothing will change.”
Officials say they are providing options to homeless people, Handler said, “but they aren’t real options that are going to help in a real way.”
Changes are coming
The Community Homeless Advisory Board has been revamping overall policies and practices to take a regional approach to homelessness in conjunction with the slated opening of the Reno Cares Campus. The board is stressing communication and cooperation among agencies and non-profit groups and a centralized data system that will keep track of the area’s unsheltered residents and their needs.
Handler is skeptical that effective changes will be made because there’s always a difference between hype and helping. But she is hopeful because agencies that work directly with homeless people will be involved in the planning and execution of new strategies.
Involving the activists
Built for Zero, for example, is a local incarnation of a national movement that works to end homelessness by changing how housing systems work. The movement’s goal is to create lasting solutions “that leave no one behind.” The local Built for Zero effort will work with the area’s governments and 35 non-profit groups that fight homelessness in the Truckee Meadows, according to Washoe County officials.
Handler was pleasantly surprised when she got a call from a Built for Zero representative on Feb. 18. She guesses somebody “heard she was making a stink” about the way unsheltered people are treated.
“Built for Zero reached out and asked if I’d be part of their group,” she said. “Of course I said yes. I’d absolutely love to have a seat at the table.”