Homelessness in the United States has been a growing issue for decades. Some communities have addressed it more than others, but overall, robust and sustainable solutions have been sparse, at least since the early 1990s when I came to the United States. I was shocked by the number of homeless individuals I encountered in New York City, where I did an internship before finishing my master’s degree in California. It was a very new and overwhelming experience for me. There were unsheltered individuals in Germany where I grew up, but the number relative to the population was substantially lower. Over the years, I learned a lot about the problems causing homelessness, and the link to mental health and to poverty. Almost 30 years later, the homeless issue has gotten worse, and COVID exacerbated the problem, which has been growing steadily even prior to the pandemic. Communities like Northern Nevada recognized the need to do something to provide the needed care for the houseless population and to create a re-balanced environment, where all demographics feel safe and comfortable. Through my work at the Downtown Reno Partnership, I have seen firsthand what is missing and how difficult it is for someone struggling to get the help needed. The Downtown Reno Partnership has helped by creating a team of five social service specialists within the ambassador program who are working with homeless individuals, one at a time, to connect them to services, guide them through the jungle of confusing processes, and even help them to obtain health insurance so the services provided to them are at least partially covered. I also have had the privilege to become part of a bigger community effort to face and address the issues in a more robust and sustainable way. COVID has not only hurt our community, but it also provided desperately needed funding to do something more substantial — like purchasing 15 acres of land and building shelter space that can accommodate up to 900 people at Governor’s Bowl Park in Reno. The process has not been perfect, and there have been challenges to overcome, but I am utterly impressed with the speed and focus the Nevada Cares Campus has been approached.
LEARN MORE: On March 15, the City of Reno published a 4-and-half minute video outlining the Nevada Cares Campus project details and construction timeline. Go here to watch and learn more.
Almost 45,000 square feet are being outfitted to provide a warm, safe space for individuals looking for shelter. The facility, slated to open in mid-April, is only the first of three phases, though. Phase Two will add services and resources, such as food services and laundry, but also counseling, medical services and other amenities to simplify the process for individuals in need. Currently all those services are so spread out that it is difficult for people using the shelter to utilize them without traveling long distances. The other advantage of having services grouped together is the ability to refer individuals to various services on the same campus, which increases their success rates. The third phase will be focused on affordable housing, which will be crucial in the effort to create a sustainable long-term solution for the community. Shelters, by definition, are short-term solutions. With the lack of permanent housing, we have used shelters almost as permanent housing. Individuals are getting accustomed to staying long term at shelters when they should be transitioned into long-term housing solutions, and the people newly on the street seeking short-term shelter are turned away because of a lack of beds. This all costs money — a lot of money. Phase One will cost around $17 million (including the land and the development of the shelter space) plus an additional $11 million of annual operating costs. The good news is that Phase One is fully funded with the help of federal CARES Act money. Phase Two is estimated at $11 million. Phase Three will depend on the magnitude of development. Nothing at this point would be a perfect solution; the problems are too deep and too complex to find perfect solutions to all of them.
But we are tackling them in an innovative way that could become an example to the nation – we are doing what many communities still need to realize: we are spending money to curb the gigantic waste of money and resources we have been spending on short-term measures that will not change anything nor address any of the root causes for the dilemma so many individuals and communities are facing. The City of Reno, City of Sparks and Washoe County have given it their all to create solutions to problems that cannot be solved in a few days, months or even years. It will be a constant effort to fine-tune the project, but with the community’s support, we will have a process in place that can serve as a template for other communities. We all have a role to make the needed progress, and now is the time for you to figure out the part you can play. “What’s Up Downtown” is a monthly Voices column in the NNBW authored by Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership. Reach him for comment at email@example.com.