The Center Street Mission backs out of Reno’s bedraggled and not-so-temporary homeless drop-in center on Morrill Street
The 21-year-old leans against a wall in the Smoke Pit. He looks up, his eyes shaded from the sun by the rim of a Country Time Lemonade baseball cap. He fidgets. He looks like he could use a cigarette.
Instead of smoking, Boyd Anderson explains how he ended up at the Center Street Mission’s Homeless Assistance and Drop-In Center on Morrill Avenue.
“Been here two nights,” Anderson says. “Came from Santa Cruz, but I’m originally from Sacramento. Heard places were cheaper here. Thought I could get a job, get on my feet.”
By the end of June, the drop-in center will either be closed or run under different management. That’s when the Center Street Mission plans to end its agreement with the city of Reno to provide services at the facility.
The city’s own plans for a drop-in shelter and soup kitchen—after a decade of indecision—are about as firm as unmolded Jell-O. And a legislative proposal to help the city acquire a new piece of land for the facility is similarly gooey, with only about a week of lawmaking left for the state.
These aren’t things that Anderson worries about. He’s just happy to have a place to stay for now, he says. He leans forward and tucks his worn sneakers under a bench.
“I’m thinking about getting a job in a casino,” he says tentatively, as if asking for advice.
“Have you applied anywhere?” I ask.
“No, not yet,” he says. “I’ve just been trying to find a place to stay.”
The Smoke Pit is an outdoor enclosure built to give the denizens of the drop-in center a place to light up.
“We had to put these walls up,” explains Edwina Hughes, executive director of the Center Street Mission. She gestures to the 8-foot-high walls. “The neighbors didn’t want to see us.”
A man near the door looks up: “They didn’t want to see a bunch of bums.”
“What bums?” Hughes replies. “I don’t see any bums here.”
Time to move on
Hughes and David Burgio of Health Access Washoe County, a free health clinic for the homeless, are waiting outside the drop-in center when I arrive. It’s easy to find the building, a stone’s throw from where Wells Avenue passes over Fourth Street. A giant bug sculpture made from the body of a VW has turned the building into a landmark of sorts.
On the building’s front door, a “No Women” sign defines the center’s clientele.
“The city doesn’t see the need to fund a shelter for women and children,” Hughes says.
That’s only one of several issues troubling Hughes, the feisty leader of a group with the motto: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
Hughes wants this to be clear: The Center Street Mission is not closing. The non-profit organization will still provide transitional housing, run facilities for women and children, help people search for work and provide drug and alcohol abuse programs. But at the end of June, the group plans to hand over its keys to the city-owned drop-in center.
“This was supposed to be a temporary solution while the city found something better,” Hughes says. “It’s been longer than temporary.”
Why call it quits now, after three years? Hughes’ reasons include insufficient funds to run the place, the poor quality of the building, the lack of commitment to provide similar services for women and children and, finally, an inability to follow through with the Center Street Mission’s most fundamental purpose—helping people find spiritual meaning in life.
First, the city’s annual $175,000 allocation doesn’t cover the expenses of operating the center. The Center Street Mission makes up the difference at the expense of $4,000 to $5,000 per month. But that takes away from its other programs, like a women and children’s emergency shelter that can handle 15-30 people.
The cheapest version of a similar mass shelter, operating without all the volunteer labor and donations, would typically require an annual budget of nearly $400,000, Burgio says, citing a budget proposal considered by the United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra.
“We operate [the Morrill drop-in] on a bare minimum,” Hughes says. “This is just a place to house people.”
The quality of the building itself also discourages Hughes—as well as merchants on Fourth Street and former building occupants.
Gaye Canepa, president of the Reno Sparks Corridor Business Association, says she wouldn’t let her dog live in the facility. And six months ago, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office community work program moved out of the building that it had shared with the drop-in center, citing deplorable working conditions.
A disparity in goals tops Hughes’ list of things she can no longer put up with. She’d like to meet more than an individual’s need for a roof overhead. She wants to get people involved in the kinds of programs that will turn their lives around.
But because the Center Street Mission agreed to accept city funds, the group can’t hold Bible studies or prayer sessions. And the organization’s typical signage—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved"—isn’t allowed in the drop-in center.
“We are a Christian organization,” she says. “We believe that lives are changed through Jesus Christ. And we’ve been told that we’re not allowed to say that. Our goals are different than the city’s goals. They are more into warehousing people. We’re into changing lives.”
Though he doesn’t share Hughes’ spiritual concerns, Burgio of HAWC—a federally funded project—agrees that the scope of homeless services needs to expand beyond getting the homeless out of downtown.
“We want to rehabilitate people,” he says. That means drug and alcohol abuse treatment and mental health help. That means transitional housing and job training. And while city leaders may outwardly agree that these are good things, Hughes says she’s received conflicting messages. Like when it took nearly two years to get the air flow system working.
“They got it fixed two weeks ago,” she says. “That’s real nice. Now we’re leaving, they say, ‘Anything you need, let us know.’ Two weeks ago!”
In Reno, homeless services open and close and shuffle around almost as much as the clients they serve.
In 1989, Center Street Mission founder Mickey Lufkin put up tents in the yard of a house on Center Street and lined the yard with mattresses before finding out that the city of Reno restricted this kind of housing. The group has since run drop-in centers in several locations, including Center Street, Keystone Avenue and Kuenzli Lane.
The city of Reno’s most recent debate over a homeless shelter on Sage Street—on a lot owned by Union Pacific Railroad, sitting right next to Reno Disposal—was shelved when State Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, proposed seeking money from the Legislature or the acquisition of a piece of land not far from the Nevada Mental Health Institute.
The city had paid $100,000 for an architect to design two buildings at the Sage Street site: a drop-in center and a new home for the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen. Construction was supposed to have begun this spring. But in April, the city decided to put a hold on homeless shelter talks until the end of the Legislature.
“We want to do this one time and do it right,” says city spokesman Chris Good.
But the legislature’s budget is already tight, Sen. Townsend says.
“We’re just trying to find a place for it,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing that will get plugged into a bill at the very end of the session.”
Townsend says he’s still not sure what bill might be right for adding this request for land or funding.
“I don’t have a clue, frankly,” he says. “It’s not exactly the highest thing on anyone else’s list, besides [Assemblywoman] Sheila Leslie’s and mine.”
If the money or site—which could be used to build the shelter, sold or traded for another site as determined by the local governments of Reno and Sparks, Townsend says—doesn’t come through, then the city will revert back to its Sage Street plans. If Townsend’s plan pans out, the city staff will have to begin looking at new options.
“We haven’t looked in-depth at the new site,” McElroy says. “Our architect hasn’t looked at it yet.”
The city wants a cheap alternative. But it’s hard to build consensus. And the city’s Project Restart can’t afford to do much in the way of homeless services. Last year, it had to close its shelter for women and children.
This kind of penny-pinching indecision leaves faith-based groups like the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army and the Center Street Mission doing their best to fill the gap in Reno’s homeless services. Funded mostly by individuals and churches, their goals are the feeding and housing of the homeless—and the winning of souls along the way.
But if the Center Street people back out of the drop-in center before another group is found to run it, homeless advocates like Burgio worry that people will be sleeping on the streets, and police will be unable to do anything about it.
“If you don’t have a shelter available by July 1, legally they can sleep in the parks and the cops can’t hassle them,” Burgio says.
Hughes isn’t a newcomer to the Center Street Mission. She’s been working with the group since she came to Reno 11 years ago and found herself homeless. Hughes had worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in the Bay Area. She came here with a roommate who was recovering from a drug problem.
On arrival, Hughes interviewed for and was offered a job at a downtown casino. She went back to the motel room that the two women shared, but it was empty. Her roommate had left with everything.
Hughes had no money and no place to stay. Someone told her about the Center Street Mission. She moved into a shelter for women and ended up becoming the house’s manager. After a few more leadership shifts, Hughes found herself heading the Center Street Mission.
Her passion for people is evident as she leads me through the drop-in center.
“This is not our building,” Hughes reminds me, fiercely anti-apologetic, as we start our tour of the former fire truck maintenance shop.
We walk into a large room where about 50 guys sit at rows of cafeteria tables. Some rest with their heads on the table. Others talk. One man pulls apart a large frosted cinnamon roll. Only a few watch a small television at one end with a sign that reads: “Do not turn volume on TV past half-way.”
“And this is where the guys stay,” Hughes says, holding out her arm like a good tour guide. “And this is where they pull mats out and sleep on the concrete floor.”
An average of 90-100 men spend the night at the drop-in center. And they don’t actually drop in. To stay, men have to apply for a card. Unless they are dropped off by the police at night, clients have to be in at 8:30 p.m. The maximum stay is 30 days.
On one end of the long room, large garage doors where fire trucks used to enter the building are open about a foot from the ground.
“We have to crack the doors, because it’s hot,” Hughes says. “But we can’t open them all the way or the neighbors will see us.”
The drop-in center staff members sleep upstairs in a dorm-like setting. In exchange for work—the center is cleaned three times a day and mats need daily disinfecting—the six-person staff, many former clients, gets bed, board and $25 per week. The staff receives one meal a day with food donated through the Food Bank’s program that delivers unused food from casinos like Boomtown.
The drop-in clients aren’t supposed to be receiving meals. That’s another sticky point, along with the mats for sleeping and other Center Street Mission programs.
“I’ve been told not to let [clients] lie down, not to feed them,” Hughes says. “I’ve been told we couldn’t do our search-to-work program.”
After some renovations by the city in 1998, the drop-in center opened on Morrill Avenue. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office community work program also moved into the building, in part because the Fourth Street businesses wanted some police presence in the area.
The program moved out of the building six months ago.
“When we were in there, we were cramped,” says Tom Gadd, the county services general manager. “We had to walk through the homeless to use the restroom, and that made some of the women uncomfortable.”
The building had to be routinely sprayed for rodents and bugs, he says. And there was an issue with fire codes and the amount of records the program kept at the site.
“You didn’t have to be too astute when you went in there to know it wasn’t a great place to work,” Gadd says. “It was not a conducive working environment for county employees.”
But is it OK for the area’s homeless?
“Let’s put it this way,” Gadd says. “I don’t want to move back in there. I wouldn’t think of it.”
“A lot of bad things happened with my family,” says Mike, 20, a Los Angeles native. He plays cards with newfound friends, Paul, 42, and Richard, 47, at the cafeteria table nearest the open garage doors. “So my uncle decided I should come to Reno to find a better life.”
Mike came to Reno with $500 and plans to get a job. He says that he spent the money on drugs and a hooker.
“Stuff happens,” he shrugs. “If I weren’t here, I’d be out on the street somewhere.”
Richard weighs in: “If I weren’t here, I’d be in jail. It’s illegal to be homeless in Reno. You can be arrested for sleeping in the park.” He pauses and smiles. “I’ve never been anywhere where it’s illegal to sleep.”
Richard says that he has a dual bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. He says he’s worked in the Nebraska prison system and at Boystown. One day, a friend called him, saying he was going to Reno to party. Richard went along to “have a good time and find some loose women.”
“Now, [seven years later] with two college degrees, I’m trying to get a job at Dairy Queen.”
Paul, formerly from Oregon, says that he was sent to the Reno drop-in center by a treatment facility in Fallon. He’s been out of jail for six weeks and hasn’t had much luck finding a job.
“With my criminal history, my opportunities are somewhat limited,” he says.
Mike picks up the deck of cards and starts to shuffle. Paul looks around the room.
“This is not exactly the most desirable place to be living,” Paul says. “But we tend to lean on each other for support, to fight to stay alive and do the right thing.”
The other two men look at Paul and smile sardonically.
“That moved me, man,” Mike says.
When it comes to the Morrill Avenue building, temporary keeps getting longer and longer.
“To date, the Reno City Council has extended that ‘temporary’ three times,” says Fourth Street business owner and community activist Gaye Canepa. In November, Canepa says, the city staff promised her councilwoman, Sherrie Doyle, that “the temporary” extension wouldn’t be granted again—that the building would be vacant by February.
But when February came and went and no change was in sight, Canepa says the business owners didn’t have the heart to complain. “We didn’t push the button in February, because it was so cold.”
Canepa says she admires the Center Street mission: “They’ve done a hell of a job with a horrible facility.”
But that doesn’t make continued use of the facility a workable solution, not even for just one more year. The Fourth Street merchants have joined with the Reno Alliance for the Homeless, she says, to look at several other possible locations deemed more fit for the facility.
“If it were a sound, sane building, then we might be a little more cooperative,” she says. “But the building is not safe. I wouldn’t put my dog in that building.”
Bed, breakfast & TB?
Health inspectors go through the building once a year to renew a permit that’s much like the permit granted to a hotel or motel. Only two complaints have been filed about the facility, according to David Orozco, a county inspector. In 1999, a complaint of dirty mattresses led to an inspection and a directive to throw out any torn mattresses. Last year, inspectors responded to a complaint of roaches and ordered spraying.
As far as food handling goes, Orozco says the facility earned a perfect score of 100, though the staff was told to discard older donated bakery items before they became moldy.
Canepa says she’s worried about the spread of tuberculosis.
“The city won’t admit it,” she says. “But when you have clients with tuberculosis, and these clients spit on the floor, and they do … then every night you hose the building out into the gutter and into the river … you’re spreading it to everyone.”
The Washoe County Health Department can trace only two active tuberculosis cases to the Center Street Mission, one each in 1998 and 1999, says Barbara Hunt, a district health officer. No cases were reported in 2000.
“We looked into that issue just recently,” she says. There’s very little chance that any additional diagnosed TB cases could slip through the system, she says, because physicians and labs are all required by law to report positive tests.
Workers at HAWC say that about one drop-in center client per month has a positive skin test, indicating that at some time in his or her life on the street, at a job or at the drop-in center, that person has been exposed to active TB.
“The fear has always been that if someone has active TB and they stay at the shelter, then everybody in the building will test positive for the antibody,” Burgio says.
Burgio doesn’t dispute the health department’s facts. But he wonders how many people out on the street have active TB but haven’t been tested by the health department or anyone else.
Recently, all new clients at the drop-in center have been required to take the skin test. But it takes two or three days to read the test. And in that time, the client is living at the drop-in center, possibly infecting others.
The problem isn’t specific to the drop-in center, necessarily. But if the airflow system in the building is sub-par or not maintained, it can contribute to the spread of something infectious.
“Any time you have a large population, you’re at risk,” Burgio says.
On the city’s side
When the building was converted to the drop-in center, an air exchange system was installed, says LeAnn McElroy, chief of staff for the city of Reno.
“We did have the company that installed it go over and do maintenance on it,” she says. “We’re in the process of setting up a regular maintenance program.”
McElroy says that the city is confident about the building’s fitness for the drop-in center.
“Two years ago, we went in and did an assessment,” she says. “We went through and were very pleased with the results.”
Even if Townsend’s proposal makes it through the state Legislature, it will be at least a year before the drop-in center will be relocated. McElroy knows that’s not acceptable to Fourth Street businesses.
“The businesses would like it to move as quickly as the city can move it,” she says. “The city has no plans to move it until we have a permanent site.”
McElroy is optimistic, though, about the homeless problem in general. She doesn’t have actual statistics, but she thinks the Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program, run by Reno police and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, has lowered the number of homeless in the area.
The HELP program, started in 1994, buys bus tickets “home” for 500 people a year, she says. To date, 4,100 people have been sent out of Reno to families or support systems.
“We don’t just put people on buses and send them out of town,” she says. “We only put you on the bus if someone’s there to pick you up on the other end.”
The city recently asked the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission to consider coming in to run the drop-in center. The group is still looking at the budget to see if the project is affordable, says RSGM chief operations officer Jackie Ellison. She doesn’t think that RSGM would have trouble operating a secular drop-in center, as long as the group can afford it.
“We cannot go in and operate it at a loss,” Ellison says. “That’s the basic thing. And it’s quite a hefty load.”
Only a paycheck away
After about a decade of working with the Center Street Mission, Hughes senses how easy it would be get burned out. Unless some entity commits to funding a solution for the homeless, she fears services that will help people—truly help people—will never come to fruition.
“It’s hard when all the agencies come together and make plans, and they’re squashed,” she says. “It’s a waste of time.”
A real, permanent solution, almost everyone agrees, is unthinkably long overdue.
Burgio concludes that it might be time for the community to ask for funds from the casinos or businesses that relentlessly demand that the homeless be kept out of downtown.
“Do they provide you with any funds?” he asks Hughes.
“Who?” she repeats, faking a double-take. “You’re kidding, right?”
If the shelter closes, the homeless problem in downtown will only worsen. But when the homeless are treated as merely a blight to be shelved out of the sight of tourists, that’s when Hughes draws the line.
“We forget that we’re talking about real people and real lives," she says. "Nobody walks out on the streets and says, ‘I think I’ll be homeless today.'"