Helping one family at a time

Needy families find food, shelter and hope through the Interfaith Hospitality Network

Carol Shipley, daughter Richell Overton, DeVreanna Sanders and Michael Williams at dinner.

Carol Shipley, daughter Richell Overton, DeVreanna Sanders and Michael Williams at dinner.

Photo By David Robert

Though the holiday is weeks away, it looks and smells a lot like Thanksgiving. The scent of roast pork and gravy hangs in the air. A long, narrow table—too big for all but the most fecund nuclear families—is covered with a plaid tablecloth. Kids laugh. Someone plays a piano. The first big storm of the season roars outside.

At the dinner table sit Don and Mary Williams. They and their 9-year-old son, Michael, moved to Reno from the Bay Area last summer after the rent on their apartment in a “raggedy part of town” jumped from $450 to $1,000 within a matter of months. The salary from Williams’ job in a winery warehouse couldn’t cover the rising costs. They came to Reno with a little money that they had saved up, “but that went real quick.” Their savings were eaten up by motel rent as they struggled to stay off the streets.

“We tried to beat the crowd running from there to here,” Don says. “But the job market wasn’t what we expected.”

“And man, what a culture shock,” Mary says. “We attempted to leave and go back to California 100 times. We would have been better living on the street in California. We didn’t meet good people [in Reno].”

Across the table sits DeVereaux Sanders, who is also new to Reno. He moved here with his wife and three children from Sacramento, where money had gotten so tight that they had to give up their home and move into a motel. They moved to Reno last spring, staying with friends while the couple looked for work. Sanders got a string of temp jobs, but nothing lasting.

“I wanted a change,” Sanders says quietly. “Change in state, change in environment.”

At the other end of the table sits Carol Shipley, who came to Reno from Oregon with her four children to work things out with her ex-husband. Things didn’t work out. That was two and a half years ago. She stayed and rented a home, but her ex stopped paying child support, and bills began to add up. Last summer, she and the kids had to move into a motel.

“I thought I could save money [in the motel],” she says, laughing grimly. “It didn’t work out that way.”

Probably none of these families imagined that, come November, they’d be eating and sleeping in the fellowship hall of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Del Monte Lane, hanging out with longtime UU members Jim and Betty Hulse and April Townley, the makers of that evening’s meal, and UU Vice President Ryan Conly, who would be staying with the families that night.

These families are housed through Interfaith Hospitality Network of Reno—the only facility in the area that lodges families as a unit, rather than separating adult males from women and children. One of 86 programs in the national Interfaith Hospitality organization, IHN supports “transitional” families until they can find and afford other accommodations. Families are screened by IHN director Ann Mary MacLeod and, if approved, offered at least a month-long stay. Nights are spent in one of 11 host churches—which include Presbyterian, Methodist, Unitarian, Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran religious facilities—and days are spent at the IHN Family Day Center, located in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church’s manse on West Seventh Street.

Host congregations take turns providing lodging to the families on the church site, with congregation members volunteering to cook for and stay the night with families. The churches, however, supply only food and accommodations; while religious discussions are not discouraged between host congregation volunteers and families, neither are they encouraged. Support congregations, congregations that don’t have the facilities to house families, help provide food and supplies. During Christmas week this year, Temple Sinai, a reform Jewish synagogue that acts as a support congregation, will relieve Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd of its hosting duties so that Good Shepherd members can enjoy Christmas festivities. The Northern Nevada Muslim Community will act as Temple Sinai’s support congregation.

Reno’s IHN began in June 2001 after months of planning by its Board of Trustees. Board member MacLeod stepped up to fill the director position after IHN’s first director, Lee Derbyshire, stepped down last August.

In the past year and a half, with the help of the Interfaith community, word about IHN has spread quickly. There are 20 families currently on the waiting list.

“Our goal is to get people housed,” MacLeod says. “We’re not a shelter. We’re a force to get families back on their feet, and not for the cycle to start all over.”

A tall, graceful woman with short, dark hair, MacLeod is a research scientist by trade. She has been serving IHN’s board since before the Reno network became a reality. When asked about the state of homelessness in the area—and how IHN serves the community—she smiles wide.

“Can I be truthful now,” she asks, “and tactful later?”

“You keep families together, and there’s an incentive,” she continues. “There’s a reason for them to work.”

When a parent can look into a child’s face every morning, she says, it’s hard to shrink from responsibility. IHN makes that possible.

“I didn’t have a gut-level understanding of what it’s like to be homeless until I got this job,” MacLeod says. “I’d be overwhelmed [with gratitude] that my windows rolled up in the car. When I do an intake, I hear [a family’s] life story, and I realize my life story isn’t that different, but I had family.”

Without stable family or friends to fall back on, MacLeod says, many families are just one fire, one car accident, one serious illness away from the streets.

“Poverty is just insipid. It’s just ugly. [Families] come [to Reno] and the cost of living is not commensurate with minimum wage. They go to a motel for $100 a week, and the motel goes up to $150 …”

The Williams family found out about rising motel costs the hard way. Their motel rent jumped up during the events season last summer. They ended up sleeping in their car one night. When they told this to workers at a state agency, the agency threatened to take Michael away from them if the temperature outside dropped “too low.” After more than a month of struggling to afford motel rent, they found out about IHN through the Washoe County Family Resource Center. “In America, if you’re homeless, that must mean you’re a drug addict, a bum,” Mary says. “Not that maybe your house burned down. There are a lot of different reasons [for homelessness]. There are not … resources [in Reno] for families.”

Unlike Don and Mary Williams, Sanders is quiet, even hesitant, as he talks about what brought him here. As his youngest two children, DeVreanna, 7, and DeVaugn, 5, display their seemingly endless stock of energy and his oldest, DeAndre, 13, surfs the Internet, Sanders leans forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, and remembers life in Sacramento. His wife, Khadija, who works with the mentally and physically challenged, is at work tonight.

“Money started growin’ thin,” he says. “The car was acting up. Bills were due.”

He is silent for a moment.

“It got real tough. Tougher than you can imagine.”

But things are going better than they were in Sacramento. Sanders is thankful to be in a new environment—and out of motels.

“Our goal is to get transportation,” he says. “Save money, get housing and get an occupation.”

Things are looking up for all three families. Shipley hopes to be able to save enough money from her job at Wells Fargo to have a home by Christmas. The Williams family is moving into a two-bedroom home near Idlewild Park this month.

"[IHN] has been wonderful to us and for us,” Don says.

Sitting beside him at the table after dinner, speaking over the howl of the wind and the laughter of the kids, Mary is blunt in her gratitude.

“We just wanted to make a new life for ourselves, make a change for the better," she says. "IHN saved our lives."