8 things you didn’t know about being homeless in Reno

When our intern hit the streets to investigate homelessness, she learned poverty by the numbers

Jeff Brooks, a Washoe County animal control officer, investigates a dogfight that took place outside the fence at the Record Street complex.

Jeff Brooks, a Washoe County animal control officer, investigates a dogfight that took place outside the fence at the Record Street complex.

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We see them huddled on the street corners, searching for cans in the garbage, holding signs aside the freeway, resting in the grass of a nearby park. In nearly all metropolitan areas, homelessness is a fixture of life. For most of us, the homeless man or woman or family we see on the way to work every morning is nothing more than part of our daily routine.

As of 2011, the nation’s homeless population was 636,000. In the Reno area, it’s estimated that there are 869 homeless. Over the past several weeks, we visited Reno’s most populated homeless areas. We sat down with the homeless. We asked them about their everyday lives, their struggles, their pasts, their futures. Soon enough, people began to emerge out of the statistics.

Everyone knows that being homeless is difficult. Here are eight things you may have not known about your neighbors’ struggles in the community.

1. Homeless people are people, too.

“Do not cuss!” Gena scolds her husband, Tommy.

Though it’s about 40 degrees outside, Tommy wears only a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. He doesn’t mind the cold—especially after a couple of drinks.

“I try to teach him not to cuss,” Gena explains. “Cussing is not a good thing in public. It tells people that you’re illiterate and a degenerate.”

Gena Mercer and Thomas Burkett have been together for 22 years; married 13. They’re happy. And they’re homeless.

“Everybody looks at us like we’re doing wrong, but I know my husband and I,” says Mercer. “In the morning when I pick my stuff up, I make sure all my stuff is taken care of. All my trash, everything we’ve got. Some people don’t think that way. But I do think that way. In the morning, if you walk over here, you’re not gonna find no beer cans, you’re not gonna find any of my groceries. I make sure I clean up after myself, but there’s a lot of people out here who don’t have that consideration.”

Mercer and Burkett have been living in the Record Street homeless shelters and on the streets of downtown Reno for the past three years. Sometimes, if they go canning all day, they can cash in enough cans to buy a six-pack of beer. In exchange for the beer, they’ll be allowed to crash on the floor of a friend’s apartment or hotel room. Or, they’ll just drink the beer themselves.

“I find myself drinking a lot more now,” Mercer says. “It’s easier to deal with all this out here when you’re drunk. It’s so much easier to be warm at night when you have a little whiskey. Right now I’m freezing. If I had enough money, I’d go buy me a half pint right now, and I would drink it, and I would be able to sleep for the night.”

Though Mercer and Burkett have no children together, Mercer has a son who lives in California. She says he makes good money, enough to get her off the street. But she won’t stand for that. She doesn’t want her son to know that most nights, despite the bitter cold, she sleeps on the concrete sidewalk outside the shelter, instead of inside it.

“I don’t want him to be my savior,” she says. “It’s not his place. It’s my place to save him, not the other way around. I have a grandchild I’ve seen once in his three years of life because I don’t want my son coming up here.”

2. Homeless people fear harassment by law enforcement

Burkett says he was recently released after serving a 37-day stint at the Washoe County Detention Facility located on Parr Boulevard. He was arrested for violating the city’s open container law, he says.

“They’ve got a cure for homelessness in Reno—it’s called Parr,” Burkett says.

Echoes of Burkett’s sentiment can be heard all over Record Street, where many of Reno’s homeless facilities are located. Many of Reno’s homeless, especially those living on the streets, feel that law enforcement officials take unfair advantage of the homeless in Reno.

“The city or the county or whatever, they get money for every person they put in jail,” says JJ Bailey, a man who is occasionally homeless but currently living in an apartment. “They get paid $75 dollars a night for every person they put in jail. I think it’s sad. Can’t they make money another way?”

Bailey says that regardless of whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, the law enforcement official is provided a $75 dollar compensation for every arrest made.

“We’re all about the Benjamins to those cops,” says Burkett.

For fear of being arrested, one of Mercer’s biggest worries is where she’ll will use the restroom each night. The gate to the Record Street women’s shelter closes at 9 p.m., she says, and that’s where she normally uses restroom facilities.

Until recently, Mercer says she and many of the other unsheltered homeless living on Record Street were using the restroom at the 4th Street RTC Bus Station, just a block away. But bus station employees put an end to such use, reserving their facilities for paying customers only.

“We have nowhere to go to the bathroom,” says Mercer. “In the middle of the night, where are we supposed to go? So we get caught going behind a Dumpster and our asses are in jail. Do you know how degrading that is? But it’s the circumstances of life right now.”

3. Being married is even harder on the streets

Another visit to Parr Boulevard isn’t even Mercer and Burkett’s biggest concern.

This dog took the brunt of the attack outside of the Record Street complex. He lost half an ear.

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“Our problem right now is that we’re sleeping on the sidewalk,” says Mercer. “We get woke up every morning by the police. Between 5:30 and 6 every morning, they wake us up, and we have to get our butts up and move.”

Though there’s both a men’s shelter and a women’s shelter within a hundred feet of where Mercer and Burkett have made camp on Record Street, the couple chooses to sleep on the sidewalk most nights. They do so simply because they want to be together. The shelters do not permit cohabitation, except the Family Shelter, which is reserved for families with children.

“They don’t consider us a family because we have no young children,” says Mercer. “My husband and I have been together for 22 years. But because we do not have children, we can’t be together.”

Community Relations and Development Officer Sandy Isham says the Community Assistance Center simply can’t let couples sleep together in the shelters.

“You’re going to see men and women separated by gender at pretty much every shelter,” says Isham. “It’s dorm-style sleeping quarters so we can’t allow cohabitation. They sleep on bunk beds.”

But homeless couples in Reno feel unfairly discriminated against. Like Mercer and Burkett, many choose to sleep together out in the cold rather than separated in the warmth of shelters.

“I know a lot of couples who won’t come to the shelter because of the fact that they have to be separated,” says Mercer.

Bailey says that the shelters not allowing couples to cohabitate may have subversive implications, however.

“That rule is causing people to break laws,” says Bailey. “They’d rather not, but they’re doing it to stay together. It’s practically understandable crime. These people would rather not commit crimes, but they’re taking the best of two evils.”

Mercer says she knows many couples that sell their food stamps so they’re able to get a room together for a week. Or, she says, they’ll return stolen items to stores like Walmart, where no receipt is required for the return of less-expensive merchandise.

“I don’t want to be a guilty man,” says Burkett. “I’m an honest, decent man. It hurts me to have to hurt the courts like that.”

But Burkett says it’s hard to stay within the confines of the law, given the circumstances presented by homeless life.

4. It’s tough to have a pet, too

The lack of a fence or a defined household boundaries can present large problems for homeless owners with pets. Kari Hartman, another Record Street resident, owns a 3-year-old male pit-bull named Dozer. The dog is Hartman’s constant companion, traveling with her every moment of the day and sleeping in her tent at night. Like Mercer and Burkett, Hartman refuses to sleep in shelter, but she does so because animals aren’t permitted inside.

“He’s not an official service dog, but if she had to do without that dog, I don’t know what she’d do,” says Mercer. “Dozer’s like her son.”

A few weeks ago, Dozer was involved in a dog fight when another homeless woman and her dog passed by Hartman’s tent on Record Street.

Animal control was called to the scene. Dozer was unharmed, but he bit off half the other dog’s ear. Both dog owners were inconsolable after the fight.

The other owner managed to stop the heavy bleeding from her dog’s ear with pieces of her own clothing. She sat on the corner of Record and Fourth streets with a friend, blood staining her shirt, while the animal control officer interviewed her about the incident.

“He used to look at me with his ears pointed up every morning,” she said. “He can’t do that no more.”

Hartman, Dozer’s owner, is unable to stop crying, worried about losing Dozer to animal control.

“They’re gonna take away my baby, they’re gonna take away my baby,” she said between sobs.

Despite the day’s incident, animal control officer Jeff Brooks says instances of dog attacks or fights happen on rare occasion.

“We deal with a lot of homeless people with pets,” he said. “In my experience, they tend to take real good care of them. It’s companionship and a means of staying warm.”

5. Winter overflows the shelters

It gets really, really cold in Reno. And though some homeless people such as Mercer, Burkett and Hartman make the choice to sleep outside instead of in the warmth of the shelters, there are a number of homeless forced into unsheltered circumstances when the Record Street shelters fill to capacity.

“I know guys who go up there five or six days in a row to try and get a bed, and they’ll finally get one,” says Mercer. “And these are elderly guys. There’s guys in wheelchairs, there’s guys on canes that go in there, and they have to wait. There’s just not enough resources.”

With nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing, the winter months are especially hard for Reno’s unsheltered homeless population. For this reason, an overflow shelter is opened each year to combat the problems posed to Reno’s homeless by the harsh winter conditions, says Isham.

Eric Powers, Kari Hartman, Dozer and Tom Burkett brave the cold outside the Record Street homeless complex.

Photo By D.Brian Burghart

The overflow center houses only men, Isham says, as they’ve traditionally been the homeless subpopulation in need of an overflow facility. It’s a simple warehouse lined with cots and blankets, she says, a basic overnight set-up just to get the men off the streets and out of the cold.

“Last year, we used a voucher system to put them up in hotels, but we found that the warehouse keeps the overflow simple and more streamlined,” Isham says. “It’s just easier to keep track of everyone when they’re all in one place.”

Like the Record Street shelters, the overflow facility has two staff members present 24-hours-per-day.

6. Record street is Reno’s homeless services

Record Street is the hub of homeless assistance centers in Reno. Volunteers of America, a national non-profit organization, and Project ReStart, a community program to end homelessness in Reno, have joined together to create the Community Assistance Center in downtown Reno.

The Community Assistance Center is comprised of three separate shelters: a men’s shelter, a woman’s shelter, and a family shelter. There is also the Day Area, an outdoor arena with shade pavilions, benches and trees, where homeless people can go during daytime hours under the protection of security service.

Isham says the goal of the Community Assistance Center is to provide comprehensive support services to those residing in the shelters, helping the homeless to regain stable lives and living situations.

Through the ReStart program, the Community Assistance Center provides mental health support services for homeless individuals, and provides a homeless prevention program to help individuals and families before they have need of a shelter or resign to the streets.

“With all of these services located together we have a one-stop comprehensive collection of services to help people exit out of homelessness and continue on to a more productive and prosperous life,” says Isham.

7. It’s hard to go hungry in Reno

The Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada’s St. Vincent facilities, located just east of the Record Street campus, work to provide food to Reno’s homeless and impoverished residents. St. Vincent’s Dining Room and St. Vincent’s Food Pantry, and St. Vincent’s Thrift Shop, as well as a number of additional services.

Scott Cooksley, the food pantry manager, had an exceptionally busy morning on Dec. 8 as St. Vincent’s held a special holiday giveaway event, handing out holiday hams, complete with fixings, to nearly a thousand needy families in the Reno area.

After the lines died down, Cooksley and his team of volunteers were able to take a breather, relaxing from the hectic, but rewarding, morning event.

Though the holiday ham giveaway may seem like a laborious, intensive process, but for Cooksley and the St. Vincent’s staff, it’s just another morning.

“This is a great event, but this is what we do every day,” said Cooksley of the holiday ham giveaway. “We’re open six days a week. This is normal.”

Cooksley was homeless once. And his past has given him an acute awareness of the number of families and individuals who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness in the Reno area.

“The way things are now in this day and age, a family or a person is one check away,” he says. “They get sick for a week, they don’t get paid for a week, they’re on the street. They’re child gets sick that week, they can’t work that week, they’re on the street. Somebody misses a child support payment or an alimony payment, they’re on the street.”

Cooksley said St. Vincent’s really enjoys holding the ham giveaway event because its comes at a time of year when the community is more aware of its needy population. But the need is ever-present in Reno, Cooksley says, it’s not strictly a holiday dilemma.

“We like doing this because we were lucky enough to get a couple nice donations” Cooksley said.

Other groups—We Care, Rise and Loving Hearts Club—feed homeless people at the Record Street site almost every night.

8. Homelessness is big in Nevada

Although the total homeless population has decreased by 1 percent between 2009 and 2011, the number of unsheltered people has increased, according to a report conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. People living on the streets, in cars, or in abandoned buildings increased by 2 percent between 2009 and 2011.

And, although the homeless population did decrease on a national level, it did increase in nearly half of all U.S. states, and by 20 percent or more in 11 states.

Although Nevada’s total homeless population decreased by 27 percent, Nevada’s level of unsheltered homelessness decreased by just 10 percent.

The “doubled up” population (people who live with friends, family or other nonrelatives for economic reasons) increased by 13 percent from 6 million in 2009 to 6.8 million in 2010. The doubled up population increased by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2010.

According to the report, Nevada has the fourth highest rate of homelessness among all 50 U.S. states.

Nevada has the second highest rate in the nation of severe housing cost burden. Housing is considered affordable when it accounts for 30 percent or less of monthly household income.

This means, in Nevada, of the households living below the poverty line, 81 percent are spending half, or much more, of their income on rent alone, leaving the households severely housing cost burdened, meaning they spend 50 percent or more of their monthly income for housing. When housing accounts for 50 percent or more of a household’s resources, any unexpected financial crisis could jeopardize housing stability and lead to an increased risk of homelessness.

Nevada’s unemployment rate ranks the highest in the country at 14.9 percent.

Between 2009 and 2011 1 in every 11 houses were foreclosed upon.