A home for the holidays (and beyond)
As temperatures dip into the single digits, some homeless success stories shows the need for an emergency shelterfor women and children
Life in these United States is funny. Our country is based on the proposition that all men are created equal. On one hand, we say people should be treated with equality—equal under the law, that is—on the other, we say some people are entitled to better lives.
For example, people who work harder or who are smarter or who are stronger or who are luckier can live as luxuriously as they can afford.
Thus, to borrow a phrase, some people are more equal than others. As a nation, we accept that, we approve of that, we aspire to that. We hold up the idea like a brass ring, and the most fortunate among us strain to catch it. A few get a free go-around. Most of us are content just to ride the carousel.
But there’s a darker corollary to this proposition. Assuming everything else remains equal, when there are winners, there are losers. So we must acknowledge that, if our system is built to reward those who achieve through luck or pluck, those who don’t achieve get the punishment they deserve. It’s that notion of individualism—it’s entirely up to each of us whether we succeed or fail.
Those who are bad planners, too stupid to get educated, too lazy to work—too drunk, drugged, weak, poor, crazy, immoral, unhealthy, naïve, young, old, malformed—or just plain unlucky end up in bad situations, possibly living on the street. And if their children end up with them or “in the system"? Well, maybe they’re better off.
For every one person who recoils from this cynical view, there will be a host of others who don’t consider the idea odious enough to give it a second thought. After all, voters in Washoe County, Reno and Sparks came up with more than $10 million for a new and improved animal shelter, while homeless advocates are struggling to come up with $8.1 million for an emergency shelter for women and families.
The truth of the matter is that most people who hit the skids aren’t dissolute losers who can’t get their shit together. It’s far more likely that they are simply the unlucky: the ones who were laid off, who got old, whose child or parent or partner got ill, whose spouse abandoned them, who were abused as children. Many are women and children. Some 66 percent are families with children, 20 percent have mental illness, 30 percent are veterans and 60 percent have substance abuse issues.
Some things simply can’t be planned for. Nobody ever plans for her husband to come home and stick his fingers in her vagina to check for the lingering evidence of the lover she didn’t have. Nobody ever plans for her spouse to come home and beat the hell out of her. Nobody ever plans for a layoff or a catastrophically sick family member. Nobody plans to be mentally ill. Nobody plans to be outside in the Sierra winter with a child.
In Reno, the plight of homeless men has gotten a lot of media attention during this week’s record-setting cold temperatures. According to published reports, 10 men were turned away from the emergency shelter for men one night last week when the temperature dropped to single digits. What isn’t included in these reports is the number of women and children who were turned away from the emergency women and families’ shelter.
There’s a reason for this. There isn’t one.
Last year, ReStart, the area’s primary agency to help for with emergency homelessness prevention and stabilization, had 5,100 families ask for help. The agency was able to fund services for 288 of them. The vast majority had to fend for themselves.
There’s an obvious reason that we in Washoe County don’t see women and children on the street: They hide. If a woman—or even a couple—is found to be homeless with children, Child Protective Services often takes the children.
Still think this society doesn’t expect the weak to suffer?
Kimberly Stone, 39, was one of the lucky ones. She’s bipolar. Because of her mental disability, she was able to get involved in the ANCHOR program through ReStart, which basically set her up in a subsidized apartment. Sitting on a love seat in her basement apartment, she strokes her long, carefully curled hair and, in slightly lisping tones, tells of her family’s big adventure while two of her children, Tennille, 4, and Chaslynn Rose, 3, laugh and play and demand her attention. The children are bright-eyed, curious and chatty.
Last year, her husband decided he didn’t want to work anymore. Actually, maybe it wasn’t as simple as that because, she claimed, he was also talking to people who weren’t there and convinced that Stone had a boyfriend living in the attic.
“He would never go get help,” she said. “I used to tell him he needed help, but no, he’s a man. When I met him, he was a wonderful guy. He’d work when he was sick, even. He’d go to work, but something changed. I think he became obsessed with me.”
The couple and their children lost the home they had over on Vassar Street. They tried to get into a shelter, but there is no shelter in the area for couples, let alone couples with children.
“They wanted to separate us,” Stone said.
So they got a storage unit and put their belongings in it. They loaded up the toddler and the baby into the Nissan 280ZX and began living in campgrounds. People can’t stay in campgrounds indefinitely, not around here anyway, so when it was time to leave, they’d pack their tent and gear into the car, move it back to the storage unit, move the family to Lahontan Reservoir or Bowers Mansion or Frenchman’s Lake, go back to the storage unit for the gear, return and set up housekeeping.
“We were acting like we were having big fun. ‘Oh, we’re camping, we’re having fun.’ But that was where we lived.”
After six months, they scraped together a first and last and got a place up on Patten Drive, and dad went to work for temp agencies. For a while. Then he quit. Stone, who’d worked up until Chaslynn’s birth, was stuck. Her husband would work only when he had a mind to. He was getting more violent. Could she go back to work? Who could she depend on to watch her children? Certainly not the man she said was “a good dad but not a very good husband.” Perhaps her disabled sister?
And then, on Aug. 12, he just walked away.
“My landlord was trying to work with me, and he gave me a little bit of help, but he’s not a welfare department, and eventually he said, ‘You’re evicted.’ I had nowhere to go.”
Stone missed her first appointment with ReStart. She was over at Reno Housing Authority trying to find a place for herself and the girls, but she wasn’t taking her medication anyway.
She went to the Nevada Mental Health Institute and got back on her medication. She applied for food stamps, Aid to Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Rung by rung, she pulled herself—if not up, at least she got her head out of the muck. When she finally met with ReStart, things began to fall into place, and she got this apartment and help to pay for it.
Last week, Chaslynn had 10 teeth pulled: baby-bottle rot. The front four were abscessed. This causes the kind of pain that brings a grown man to his knees. But Chaslynn (who answers to the nickname Fatty to her sister and visiting cousin, Harmony) never complained.
Stone feels blessed. Fixing Chaslynn’s teeth was another rung up out of the pit; just having the basement apartment without fear of her husband or life on the street or having the children taken is a measure of success—at least she has a bedroom, if she doesn’t have a bed. At least she has a place to keep her belongings.
“It’s hard when you are so far down in the hole. You have nowhere to go, no car, two kids, no job. I know there are women who do do that. They can do it. I don’t know why I felt like I couldn’t, but without this little help right here, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Stone is only remarkable because of her success. And anyone who gets out and looks will find that success can be measured in a lot of ways. Take Kristina Wellman, 38.
She, too, lives with her children in a sparsely appointed apartment that she got through ReStart. She, too, had an abusive partner. She, too, has a mental problem, although hers, post-traumatic stress disorder, isn’t helped with medication.
There are, of course, differences. Wellman was involved with a man who routinely abused her physically and sexually. She’s had trouble with the law. While she was never without a roof over her head, she’d sunk lower.
This hazel-eyed former cocktail waitress had another issue—crank—and she measures her success in even smaller increments.
Days. Weeks. Months.
“I’ve been clean now a year and a half, almost 19 months.” The plain-talking addict gestures to a partition outside the apartment’s kitchen. “I’ve got a plaque up there on my wall of achievements and accomplishments. I just got one in the mail from my outpatient program. I got my certificate. My CPS case is closing next month. Completed. Accomplished. I’ve succeeded. There was just no way I was going to give up two children after I lost one. That really woke my ass up.”
Things got really bad for Wellman when her oldest child was taken at age 8 (she’ll be 14 next month). It was the drugs. Things got bad again in June of last year when she was busted for child abandonment. Child Protective Services took her two boys, Gino and Brian. She did four and a half months of a seven-month sentence. She didn’t do any drugs in jail, and she says she hasn’t done any since.
“Sometimes you’ve got to fail before you succeed,” she said, helping her mother to corral the two boisterous boys back to a bedroom so she can tell her cautionary tale to the press. “And that’s what happened to me. That’s the key right there. You’ve got to fail so you can see the rock bottom, you can see the dirt. You can see hell. And then, little by little, you can crawl up. And then you can step. And then you can walk. It’s the process that you’ve got to go through. You can succeed at anything then.
“I know failure. I know pain. Now I want love and to be loved. Now I want to succeed. And I’m learning new values. Different thinking, different actions. I’m just learning. That old addict behavior, instead of putting shit off, now I can learn values on how to be normal. I’m doing shit that’s normal, and I’m tripping on it. I’m tripping on not having to trip. I’m sewing a pillow. Now that’s domestic. I’m cool with that.”
Need one more example? Priscilla Calvert struggled with drugs almost from the time she graduated from Hug High back in 1980, but she didn’t meet crack cocaine until she was 22. Things went downhill from there. She, like Stone and Wellman, lives in housing arranged by ReStart. Her apartment, like the others, is a bit thin on the furniture but tidy. She, like Wellman, lost her children when she was arrested. Unlike Wellman, she was arrested because her husband left his syringes where the authorities, and for that matter the children, could find them.
She, too, struggled to get her children back, doing Drug Court, doing classes. Fighting to stay clean—she still has dreams about drugs—and to get her family into more stable circumstances.
Her children aren’t around today. Although it’s Calvert’s day off from the hotel where she works, it’s a school day, and the kids are where they belong.
Calvert peers with tawny eyes from beneath curled bangs, more reticent about telling her story—perhaps because she fell farther than the others and is less convinced of her safety net.
Calvert is one of the poor planners. When she was a little girl, she didn’t plan on being abused by her stepdad. She didn’t plan on getting involved with physically abusive men. She didn’t plan on getting hooked on crack. She didn’t plan for her children’s welfare when she was too stoned to know that she was doing drugs in front of her children.
She was lucky. She had a family member die from drugs. She had friends go to prison. She was lucky because the seriousness of her error got her the attention she needed to get her life on track.
She says, hiding her mouth behind her hand as she talks, that she began smoking marijuana in high school, in part to escape from what her stepfather was doing to her. She told her mother but got her face slapped. She didn’t plan for much beyond that.
“I didn’t think about what I wanted to be in high school,” she says, adjusting her gray, sleeveless blouse. “I wasn’t good at nothing, really. Didn’t play sports. [I was good at] doing marijuana, skipping school. It wasn’t that great of a life. I was troubled a lot.”
Across town, at 490 Mill St., in a plain-Jane corner building in an office with intermittent overhead fluorescent lighting and an aquarium that needs attention, ReStart Executive Director Melany Denny and Fund Development Coordinator Jim Vieth opine about the lack of an emergency shelter in Reno for women and families. The pair is part of a network that is taking the first steps to build an $8.1 million, 150-bed facility to allow homeless families to stay together when they are in their most desperate circumstances. Their hope is to put it near the men’s emergency shelter, which is being constructed on Record Street.
Denny and Vieth encounter homeless men, women and children on a daily basis, and in some ironic way, the fact that large segments of the public are unaware that there is no emergency shelter for homeless women and families is a sign of their success. But they see their tiny successes as effective as sand walls against the tide.
“Oh my God, we had 122 unsheltered homeless individuals on the street last year on our ‘point in time,'” says Denny, disputing the idea that homelessness has decreased in Reno just because there are fewer high-profile drunks downtown. A “point in time” is a survey of the homeless people on the river or on the railroad tracks at one particular moment. She sounds surprised, but she can’t be; she must cite this statistic a hundred times a year. “Three families with children and six other persons, and that’s at 3 o’clock in the morning on the street, where they can be seen and counted.”
That point-in-time survey didn’t count the families hidden in cars, doubled up in weekly rentals or huddled in parking garages or under bridges.
Denny and Vieth hold up women like Stone, Wellman and Calvert as hopeful beacons, representing what can happen to families who are given a helping hand when they are at their lowest point. Those women were lucky. They are success stories. But they didn’t have to be.
“I assure you, if there hadn’t been a back-end permanent housing program that they could be funneled into, those women would have been [on the street],” Denny says. “That’s how we’re covering up our issue. But we’ve got a family that comes in at 4:30 on Friday, and they’re going to be sleeping on the street over the weekend. That’s not a proper solution for a community. We need to house them. There are much more cost-effective ways to do this than what we’re doing now.”
Looking almost priestly in his black clothes and with his short-cropped hair and beard, Vieth clasps his hands together, perhaps a sympathetic gesture to the women and children who spent the previous night in sub-freezing temperatures. He plainly doesn’t believe there should be winners and losers to the proposition that all people are created equal.
“I’ve only been here for a couple of months, and I read the papers every day,” he says. “I did not know there was no women and children’s shelter in town. I just assumed, like people do, that you take care of women and children who are out on the street. But they’re hidden away, and they’re not taken care of. The average person, if they are aware of that, they’re going to want to do something about it. How could you live with that? Go home to your nice warm home, Christmas time, and sit down to dinner. If you knew that there were people out there with little kids out on the streets, living in their car, you might be willing to give them a few bucks. Almost anyone would.”
ReStart, Inc., is at 490 Mill St., Reno, NV 89502. To ask for or to offer assistance, call 324-2622.