Faith in action
A local nonprofit fights to house the homeless
On Thursday, July 18, JD Klippenstein, the executive director of nonprofit ACTIONN, received a call from Reno City Councilmember Devon Reese. There had been an unexpected development in the city council agenda.
City Attorney Karl Hall was requesting that the council approve a resolution allowing him to file a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Boise, Idaho, in its lawsuit against homeless camping. Boise decided to take the issue to the country's highest court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that one of the city's ordinances was unconstitutional. The ordinance had made it illegal to sleep outside, basically criminalizing homelessness.
But there was some good news. Most of the councilmembers were not in favor of Hall's resolution, preferring a more cautious approach to the homeless problem in Reno, and it seemed unlikely to make any headway.
Four days later, Klippenstein received another call from Mayor Hillary Schieve's office. She was pulling the resolution from the agenda and wanted to continue the conversation about homelessness with the community.
“We were pretty much expecting it,” said Aria Overli, an organizer at ACTIONN. “It was just a matter of making sure it went through. So, it was really good news and thankfully saved us a lot of extra work.”
Although media reported concerns about criminalizing homelessness, Klippenstein believes such concerns may have been overblown, fueled by the attempt to pass anti-vagrancy laws two years ago, as well as the city's lack of a clear direction on how to solve the problem.
“There are some issues that need to be clarified, [and] I would like to have clear direction from the 9th Circuit [on] providing advice for our police force,” Hall said in a recent interview.
“It was just a weird situation in general,” Klippenstein said. “It's just indicative of what is happening with homelessness in our community. There isn't really a path.”
Over the past two years, Klippenstein and ACTIONN have been working to create that path. After identifying housing as a key problem, they met with local and national experts as well as people affected by Reno's shortage of affordable housing in order to devise a solution.
They settled on creating a trust fund that would provide enough resources to create sustainable, affordable housing options—a model that proved successful in major cities like Los Angeles and New Jersey. It was an important first step, providing a practical, feasible direction that had been lacking.
For most of that first year, they worked directly with Washoe County through the process on getting an ordinance written up for a county commission vote. They also organized a town hall meeting of about 80 people, and invited County Commissioner Bob Lucey to listen to the stories of those directly affected by the problem.
Over the next few months, they met with the commissioner three times and shared stories about the experience of homelessness or precarious housing in weekly motels. It worked and their plan was added to the agenda.
Next, they'd have to convince city officials. So, ACTIONN met with communities of faith in Northern Nevada to get a convincing number of people to buy into their vision for housing and homelessness in Reno.
“We did a lot of outreach, talking to the community about this potential solution to get people mobilized and engaged around it,” Overli said.
ACTIONN mobilized over a thousand people to send emails, as well as show up to county commission meetings when the plan for the affordable housing trust fund would be heard.
In November 2018, they had the first hearing at the Washoe County Commission. More than 200 people showed up in support of the housing trust fund, providing a bastion of support that legitimized the need.
“When the county commissioners were there to hear the housing trust fund, we would fill the chambers,” Klippenstein said. “People living in weekly motels, service providers, faith leaders, business leaders, all these folks here to say, ‘This is a tool we need.'”
They also added a little wrinkle to their presentation in order to reinforce the point—whenever the first person to speak on behalf of the trust fund would get to the podium, they would invite everyone in the room to stand with them while they made their comment.
“The first time we did that, I was speaking,” Klippenstein said. “When the whole room stood, the commissioners leaned back with their eyes open, and a few of them actually took [pictures].”
After the first hearing, the county commission approved the plan, and a draft ordinance was written up to be heard by the commission in February 2019. It was moving slowly, but there was progress.
In February, one of the plan's leaders, Dave Frasier, who spent a lot of time in weekly motels throughout his life, got an opportunity to share his story with the commission. Klippenstein recalls the moment as powerful, a moment where “you could hear a pin drop.”
“It was incredible,” Klippenstein said. “When he was done, the chair … said ‘I just want to let you know, I let you go over your time. But the reason I did is that your voice here means more to me.'”
The draft ordinance was unanimously approved in March, and the housing trust fund became policy. Then, a setback. The court system was vying to get some of the funding to build a new courthouse, and it wasn't clear if the original plan would be prioritized.
“When we first learned that the court system [was] vying for the money, we, at that time, were under the impression that they wanted to take the money away, [and] that was really frustrating,” Overli said.
The team convened and tried to map out their next course of action, all while reeling from what felt like a gut punch. The court system is very influential, and they were concerned about going directly against it.
However, it never did escalate to that. In fact, the court system was feeling the effects of the housing problem, with people having no homes to return to after being released from jail, and often returning back to jail.
After extensive discussion, both sides reached a compromise: a significant portion of the trust fund would go to affordable housing, another portion to building an infirmary in the jail which currently lacked one, and a third to building a public courthouse that prioritized low-income communities.
Although Overli still thinks their work at ACTIONN is at odds with the legal system and its emphasis on criminalization, she and the rest of the team were wholly behind the compromise in order to move things forward. It's all a part of the community organizing process—wins and losses and compromises.
The current structure has also provided even more momentum for the finalization of the policy, with the court system benefitting from the community support behind the affordable housing trust fund, while using their influence to make sure the funding becomes a reality.
Another meeting for the final ordinance that will actually finance the trust fund is slated for September, and Klippenstein and Overli expect it to be fully actualized, with substantial financing to execute real projects.
The details are still a work in progress, but there are signs that the funding will come from the governmental services tax and could reach about $10 million in its first year. Overli also confirmed that the plan is to continue to finance the fund for the next 25 years, in order to create a lasting impact.
In addition to the trust fund, ACTIONN also helped pass legislation that capped fees for late rent payments at 5 percent in order to reduce evictions.
The process of solving the housing problem in Reno has been painstaking, but it will be very rewarding for ACTIONN and a growing population currently disenfranchised from the right to shelter.