Carson City’s homeless population is growing.
Last week, cities around the country conducted the annual point in time count, a count of homeless individuals required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive federal funds for homeless programs.
A crew of two dozen or so people from local agencies and organizations spread out across Carson City to count people on the street, in shelters, and at the Carson City Community Center, where Carson City Health and Human Services (CCHHS) also held individual assessments for service.
The count totaled 61 individuals, an increase of 27 percent from last year. Although the count is a snapshot in time, and can bounce around from year to year, the increase is in line with what people working with the homeless have experienced.
“We’re seeing more, I’d say 30 percent more,” said Deacon Craig Lagier, chaplain, Carson City’s Sheriff’s Office.
Lagier heads up Night Off the Street, or NOTS, a program operated in several local churches by 156 volunteers that gives dozens of people each night a place to sleep in the winter, from November to March. Lagier created the program four years ago after a homeless man he knew died in an encampment off South Carson Street.
“Benny froze to death,” said Lagier, just half a mile from a city-operated warming shelter in Fuji Park that has since been closed and replaced by NOTS.
Lagier is part of a team of individuals, agencies, and organizations working with the city’s homeless who say there are myriad reasons the population is on the rise.
“The biggest issue is the cost of rent has skyrocketed in so many places,” said Jim Peckham, executive director, Friends in Service Helping (FISH), which operates a 24-bed emergency shelter and a six-unit transitional shelter for families as well as a dining room, food banks, a thrift store, and a shower and laundry facility.
Peckham said an influx of people moving into the area with new jobs, or looking for one, are pushing up rents because there’s more demand than supply, and bumping current tenants out, some on to the street.
Earlier this month the Board of Supervisors approved setting aside about eight acres of city-owned land on Butti Way and issuing a request for proposal for an affordable housing development.
FISH is working on developing an 18-unit apartment complex funded through private foundations and grants rather than HUD, which attaches a lot of strings to its projects, said Peckham. He hopes to see something built and available within the next three years and plans to house low-income working people and train them for higher paying jobs at the same time.
Peckham also welcomes the high-end multifamily projects already in development, such as the Carson Hills Apartments behind the Galaxy Fandango, because it would increase overall inventory and likely drive down rents at other properties.
Mary Jane Ostrander, division manager, CCHHS, agrees a lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 issue.
“It is getting more and more difficult to find property managers who will accept assistant programs because they don’t have to,” said Ostrander.
In 2018, CCHHS had to leave federal money on the table. The city took less than it could have been allocated from HUD’s Continuum of Care program, which provides money for rent subsidies, because the city was unable to find enough housing to use all the funds.
Carson City this week was awarded $16,366 and $30,946 for 2019, another reduction from $21,718 and $37,454, respectively, in 2018.
HUD requires CCHHS and Nevada Rural Housing Authority (NRHA), which administers a housing voucher program, to place people in housing based on the federal agency’s fair market values.
“The HUD formula is behind by 2.5 years,” said Bill Brewer, executive director, NRHA.
HUD’s 2019 fair market value for a Carson City studio apartment, for example, is $565, $1 more than 2018. The fair market values for a one-bedroom, three-bedroom and four-bedroom apartment all dropped this year — from $682 to $679, $1,254 to $1,246, and $1,518 to $1,514, respectively. A one-bedroom remained the same at $862.
“The biggest challenge we have is there are simply not enough units,” said Brewer. “For every hundred applicants only 30 can find a place to rent.”
When applicants move off the waiting list and receive a voucher they have 90 days to use it or lose it.
“Folks who have applied for vouchers are living in a van or living with a cousin or doubling up with a friend so depending on your definition, most of our applicants are homeless,” said Brewer.
Housing isn’t the only issue.
“They’re being brought here by other jurisdictions, physically transported,” said Sheriff Kenny Furlong.
Some people are brought here for treatment at Mallory Behavioral Health Crisis Center, Carson Tahoe Health’s mental health and substance abuse emergency facility on Fleischmann Way.
“They have been told (by another jurisdiction) we don’t have housing. They end up in Carson City for services,” said CCHHS’ Ostrander, and after discharge, “they’re not going back because they’ve already been told there is no housing.”
Other people have been simply dropped off in town. Mayor Bob Crowell reached out to representatives in the surrounding area and told them to stop, and he and Ostrander addressed the problem at the 2018 Nevada League of Cities & Municipalities conference last fall.
“I asked to have a forum on the homeless issue. This is a regional issue and you can’t shove it off on somebody else,” said Crowell. “I think that message hit.”
Increasingly, people working with the homeless population are seeing people from even farther away.
“We’ve had people from Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma,” at the NOTS shelters, said Deacon Lagier.
FISH’s Peckham said, historically, the homeless population here would drop by half in the winter as people migrated west. But that trend has reversed as people move from more dangerous and crowded urban areas in California to Nevada, often to Carson City.
“We’re starting to see people move east, from San Francisco to Sacramento to Reno to Carson City,” said Peckham. “There is too much competition for too little resources.”
With that has come more reports of aggressiveness, particularly aggressive panhandling and especially in the area around Mills Park, where the sheriff’s department has upped its patrols.
“It has tended to settle down,” said Furlong.
Last summer there were three deaths. Two homeless people died, one across the road from an apartment where some of his family lived, and another, a heavy drug user, in a field. A third man who had a home but chose to live in his van hung himself inside the vehicle.
“We had a few deaths that caused alarm,” said Furlong.
The deaths reminded Furlong and Lagier of Montana, a homeless woman found buried six years ago.
“Someone buried her with her belongings. It was a respectful death,” said Lagier.
Lagier recently took Crowell out to see and meet many of the city’s homeless, all of whom the deacon knows by name.
“Homelessness is a complex issue, but at the end of the day they are human beings,” said Crowell.