Down but not out in Reno
People become homeless for lots of reasons. Our writer says the loss of dignity is worse than the loss of a roof over one’s head
Extradited from the Midwest and jailed in Nevada for being delinquent in his child support payments, the wiry, hyperactive 40-year-old had tried to kill himself with an overdose of nitroglycerin tabs when he was 16. As doctors and nurses scrambled to save him from the eternal flatline, Bobby was visited.
“I was outside my body, watching them work on me from up above, when God told me, ‘Bobby, I’m not ready for you yet. It’s not time.’ “
Bobby was recently fired from a job for answering a question honestly rather than tactfully. When the employer contested his application for unemployment, he ran out of money, was evicted from his home and had to abandon everything he owned.
“The worse thing was I had to kill my dog,” he says. “Shadow was the best friend I ever had. But everything happened so suddenly, and I couldn’t find a home for him.”
He pauses to collect himself, tries to shake off some of the guilt.
“I love God, but I don’t understand what He has in mind for me.”
Homelessness has as many facets as it has faces. Every size, shape and color is represented in the exclusive club whose members have succumbed to their demons as they wrestle with their gods.
Not all of the stories being lived by those without homes are as dramatic as Bobby’s. Ben lost his job as a taxi driver when he stood up for his right to privacy. Don, in his early 50s, was diagnosed with diabetes and, just like that, lost his license to be a long-haul truck driver. Derek had been in jail for possessing too much weed in San Diego; when released, he headed north to avoid falling back into the same scene.
My own story, that of a Wooster High School graduate (1966) with a master’s degree in psychology who’s pursued a couple dozen different careers, has been less traumatic than many I have heard since I returned to Reno without income or home. It starts when I was arriving late one night at the end of a long drive from Seattle.
I have driven Highway 395 enough times to know how to get directly to the heart of town. Confident that I was locked into my spiritual path and that one or more miracles would take care of my basic needs, I intended to continue working on a writing project that I had started in earnest in the Virgin Islands—a sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll memoir, the whole Baby Boomer scene.
“What you need is a sponsor,” my short, sweet, insane Polish landlady in St. John informed me before I abandoned the Caribbean after a four-month stay.
“A sponsor?” I said.
“Yes, somebody who will pay your expenses until your book is finished,” she said. “People do it for artists and writers all the time.”
“That would certainly qualify as a miracle,” I said.
When I absentmindedly turned onto the first Reno exit, just south of Golden Valley, my efforts to correct my mistake in the dark led me deeper into Panther Valley and finally to a dead-end street and a dirt road leading into the desert. I was trying to find my way to a motel, so I mildly cursed myself for not paying attention. I began second-guessing my theory of being in tune with my inner guidance—what some people call God, Universe, Spirit or Higher Power.
Five days hunkered down in a cheap motel—writing all day and into the night and coming out only for a bite to eat once each day—quickly exhausted my resources with no signs of divine assistance. I wasn’t so sure that my reason for being in Reno didn’t include some serious growth experiences, the kinds that are accompanied by fear and discomfort if not outright pain. Fear equated to lack of faith, so I bit the bitter pill and prepared to live in my car.
The day before I moved out, a notice caught my eye in the newspaper. A local volunteer agency was beginning a round of training the next day, so I signed up. Thirty–five years of community work was not going to end just because I was without home or income. Besides, sharing a common interest with other Reno folks could expand my network, and that could lead to something.
With enough money for one more tank of gas, the issue of where to live in my car stumped me. Where could I park the car and live that would not attract the wrong kinds of attention? The answer came instantly: the dirt road in Panther Valley.
Suddenly, what I thought was a mistake revealed itself as an answer provided before the question. I had to smile at how quickly I was reminded, once again, that I was not alone on my journey.
The dirt road at the end of a small neighborhood led to a small, inactive hillside quarry that afforded me substantial desert privacy. Two sleeping bags, a down quilt, thin air mattress and feather pillow combined to make a fine bed. With a slight turn of the key, I had power for my computer and heat. Sunrise greeted me each morning with huge golden orbs of warm sunlight that thawed my frosted breath from the inside of the car windows.
Although a week of temperatures lingering in the teens made getting out of bed and dressing a race against frostbite, the solitude allowed me to sit in a meditative, often prayerful state. If I was going to receive a message from God, I wanted to be ready.
Then my new reality began to sink in.
As I sat journaling in my car, I started to see the things that are finite and would cost money to replace: toothpaste, floss, soap, clean clothes. I’d been practicing gratitude, taking the time to be thankful for the good things in life. Being grateful for things I had always taken for granted was spiritually invigorating. But when I counted the silver coins in the ashtray, I found I had all of $3 and change. I already knew I was deep in credit card debt and that my debit card was down to $4 for emergency gas.
Panic struck the morning I lost my toothbrush. I hadn’t realized the degree to which my comfort zone was dependent on clean teeth. Fortunately, a grocery warehouse next to the state job center had good brushes for a price that fit my budget.
My comfort zone also presupposed that I would not be standing in line or sitting among the dirty and destitute at the local free lunch. However, contrary to the notion that it is possible to live on air, I was hungry. A mixture of fear and self-consciousness accompanied me as I surrendered to the only path clearly available to me.
Where was that miracle I was expecting?
When I went to the free lunch on Third Street, I expected to witness a lot of despair. Instead, I found resignation. The eyes, and the faces that absently hold them, told me that. The more I looked at the hundreds of storied faces and compared those looks to my own emerging feelings, the more I realized that those who despair fear resignation. By some quirk of existential madness, hope is the dialectical possibility residing in hopelessness. While despair can stop one’s life dead in its tracks, there is still the chance for a miracle: A few coins found on the street may pay off in a nickel slot machine, a guardian angel may wake up, or the Almighty Himself may intervene.
Those who are resigned to their fate have given up believing there is any other place for them than the place they now hold near the very bottom of the American social food chain. Often addicted to something—alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling—they have accepted their perceived fate. They have adapted.
Since my return to Reno, I have become keenly aware of the difference between despair and resignation. My own despair has been infrequent, tickling me now and then like the forked tongue of a curious but wary snake. I don’t like snakes, and I don’t like the implications of giving up.
I also believe in miracles.
In the line, waiting with nearly 400 of Reno’s hungry, I listened to family squabbles and murmured scams.
“Yeah, I drive this special camera to Carson City and pick up $300,” a scruffy middle-aged guy told two hungry-eyed friends. “The guy gives me a hundred for making the delivery. You guys wanna go catch a beer when we get out of here?”
My attachment to organic and naturally prepared foods, abandoned as a way to slow the cash drain, screamed bloody murder when I accepted a tray carrying macaroni with reconstituted cheese, stale bread, hardboiled egg, stale doughnut, cottage cheese and a cup of soup. As it does for so many of the daily diners, the soup, served in second and third helpings while the supply lasts, made my day. The soup is where the St. Vincent kitchen puts its limited supply of fresh vegetables and meat.
As the director for the past 11 years of the Catholic Community Services’ Dining Hall on West Third Street, Ray Trevino is responsible for converting the city’s leftovers to edible and nutritious lunches. That task, dependent as it is on the whims of consumers shopping at markets around the city, is seldom easy.
“About 10 percent of these folks are mentally hurt,” Ray said. “They need to be taken care of.”
I think about the wrinkled man with the coal-black face outside the dining hall just after my second visit. He was having it out with his invisible friend, laughing because he got to eat and his partner didn’t.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, you motherfucker. I told you you couldn’t eat here. Your shelves are full at home, but I’ve got a full belly. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Schizophrenia on Third Street.
“Most of all, we are feeding the working poor here,” Ray concluded.
Trevino is no stranger to hard times. His story includes the youthful rise to success in the restaurant world as a business owner and director of food and beverage services for casinos and hotels in Reno. Following divorce, alcohol grabbed him and dumped him on the streets for about a year. After searching for some time, an ex-con to whom Ray had given a fresh start as a cook years before found Ray piled like dung on the edge of a sidewalk.
Somehow the man got through to Ray, said he needed him to take over the free-lunch program. After cleaning up, Ray became the director of the dining hall. Eleven years later, he still works full time forthe program, living in a small apartment off the dining area.
“I’ve seen some real miracles since I’ve been here,” he told me during a recent conversation in his office.
“Miracles?” I said.
Sometime during Ray’s first two months at the dining hall, while planning for the next day’s lunch, Ray looked in the pantry and found three potatoes. He knew he couldn’t make soup for four hundred with three spuds, communicated that fact to God, and then surrendered the impossible task to his Creator.
“The next morning, about 8:30 or 9, I hear a guy outside knocking on the door. I opened the door and asked him what he wanted. He says, ‘I’m looking for a guy named Ray.’ ‘I’m Ray,’ I said. And he says, ‘Ray, California won’t let me take my potatoes across the state line, and I don’t want to just dump them someplace. Do you know anybody who can use 20,000 pounds of potatoes?'”
While the truck driver enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, Ray called around for places that could use potatoes. The 100-pound bags were off-loaded by a handful of volunteers, then, after filling every dining hall corner, distributed to food banks and kitchens in the Reno area.
Some days the line of hungry people is longer than the soup pot is deep. When the hall opens at 11:30 a.m., the line is already grown around the corner. Some days the lunches run out before everyone eats. Ray makes sure everyone who comes through the doors gets something, even if it doesn’t include soup.
“We see this every month,” he said. “Our numbers drop off right around the first of the month, when many of them get their checks. I’ve gotten to know a great number of them, and what I hear is that they go to the casinos until their money runs out, then [they] join us here again.”
Oh yeah, money.
The search for an income is a full-time job for many of my new colleagues. With few exceptions, the return on that investment is discouraging, at best. My first thought was to sell blood. Then I found out the local plasma bank will buy only from people who are residents with rent or utility receipts. The lack of an address and telephone number makes job applications suspect. A General Delivery address isn’t much better.
Nevada employment statistics suggest there are about 7,000 people unemployed in the Reno-Sparks area.
“As you have a prolonged recession, more people drop out of the labor force,” Nevada Employment economist Peter Janson said. “They get frustrated and stop looking for work.”
Nobody knows how many people are searching for work in a way that doesn’t show up in the statistics. Nobody knows how many people are underemployed.
“We see an increase in college enrollment during recessions,” Janson said. “Some go into business for themselves, while others give up all together.”
Now and then, employers looking to hire cheap labor prey on those feeling the most desperate. One such ploy puts the destitute on the sides of streets, where they try to sell newspapers when motorists stop at stoplights and stop signs or pull into shopping centers. Stories come back at the end of the days about selling one paper while standing in the cold all day with no food or water. The boss takes each person’s ID so that they can’t abandon their spot when they see that papers don’t sell where they are standing.
I’ve worked in about 32 different careers from writing for a small weekly newspaper in Washington state to working as a program developer for a small town parks and recreation department. Work has a different meaning for me these days. In St. John, the environment, heavy with heat and constant sweat, confined me to my writing desk, where there was no immediate income. Now, apathy steers me away from mainstream and mundane employment, even infects the applications and resumes I submit. A dozen applications; zero responses.
The process of surrendering to my dream and Divine Will may require employment with an outfit whose only redeeming value is that it has job openings. So, dressed in a pair of slacks and long-sleeved dress shirt and with shoulder-length hair, I offer myself to a health care facility and, when that fails, I storm the job office at a local casino, only to find that I am overqualified.
After three weeks in my car, gas tank on empty, no centrally located place to park and sleep, I committed myself to the homeless shelter. What was one of Reno’s first fire stations is now the Reno Assistance Center, the RAC, where a little more than 100 homeless men can stay at any one time. As part of the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission, the RAC is the last resort in Reno for homeless men who are not criminal enough for jail or prison, who aren’t mentally ill or otherwise disabled to qualify for other special services.
Intake was brutal, as one staff member after another was disrespectful, forceful and rude. None of them, not even the director, introduced themselves or extended a welcome. Assumptions about my character and intentions were lumped in with warnings and threats. No questions were allowed; no dialogue. When I felt anger rising in me, I caught myself, shook my head in disbelief. I had never been treated so poorly in all my adult life.
Where was the Christ in the Christian service? I wondered.
As I made my agitated and tearful way to the bunks, a new RAC mate warned me. “Get used to it,” he said.
The rules include lights on and out of bed at 5 a.m., and we must be back in the center by 5 p.m. Getting out of the center after 5 p.m. requires a letter from an employer or volunteer agency. Lights go out at 8 in the evening, and there are only a few specific times that personal items can be checked out or returned to safe storage. Don’t expect any courtesies when you check in or ask for your bags. Fortunately, there is no shortage of hot water in the showers.
One of the day supervisors summarized the RAC philosophy. “We’re not here to make it easy for you,” he reminded a group of residents grousing about the rules.
I woke up the next morning in a sea of bunk beds: 48 bunks neatly arranged where fire engines had once stood and where, later, Volkswagens had been rebuilt. The building is called the Bug House because of the huge, long-legged, black VW bug on the roof.
If I abided by the strict rules, bed number 63 belonged to me for 30 days. Ironically, that’s how much money I had—63 cents—since using my last $4 to keep the car in gas a few extra days. I wondered about the numerological implications of that coincidence. Was there a message from a higher power in that number?
The view from my top bunk lacked the romantic qualities that my car afforded during the prior three weeks. The air was dry and stale, filled with the breath of 50 or 60 half-sleeping men, many of them coughing uncontrollably all night long.
I knew if I couldn’t put together an income and a shelter before my time ran out, I’d be joining those who were living on the streets. As I walked from place to place, I saw them and their turf claimed along the freeways, the river and in back of industrial lots. Living on the streets precludes getting off the streets. Without the resources to maintain an optimistic attitude and stay clean, it would take a miracle to turn things around.
I wondered if my faith was strong enough to survive street life if it came to that.
There are between 4,000 and 5,000 homeless people each night in our community, including people in weekly motels, reports Anne Cory, CPO of United Way and chairman of the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless.
I am one of those thousands, now alternating between my car, where I can get a good night’s sleep, and the RAC, where there is a bathroom, showers, breakfast and one hot meal each day. Occasionally, church groups prepare and serve home-cooked meals that are far superior to the RAC meals or any other free meal in town.
So, my new friends ask me, what is a white, middle-class dad with grown kids, a lengthy, varied resume and a laptop computer doing homeless in Reno?
There is an edge, a precipice, that marks the difference between secure and destitute, I tell them. I am homeless and unemployed as much because I have felt compelled to rub up against that edge and thereby strengthen my faith, as because circumstances drove me to this point. When I look back on my life, I see the footprints of something large and loving accompanying me. Instead of being dead at 19, I am alive and still growing at 54. I find myself on the bottom of the social crevasse because, piece by piece, I have let go of the mindset that prevented me from knowing and being fully comfortable with myself in the mainstream.
But I didn’t anticipate the anger I would encounter. Even the people I try to help share angry stories of abuse by other people, employers and the government. I didn’t realize how easily my own anger could be activated.
In the RAC, where conversations come easily during the spaces between lock-down and lights out, many people talk about trying to put distance between themselves and the behaviors that brought them to the bottom, behaviors that keep them close to the edge.
“I haven’t worked since October and am now five weeks behind on my child support payments," Bobby says. "I have over 120 applications out there, and not one person has called me for an interview. It’s just a matter of time before my probation officer throws me back in the joint. What will I do then?"