Just the ticket

Riding the dog gets some folks home to loved ones or care takers. For a few, the bus is home.

Mildred Bonilla of Minneapolis, Minn., eats soup and waits for a ticket at the Reno Greyhound bus station.

Mildred Bonilla of Minneapolis, Minn., eats soup and waits for a ticket at the Reno Greyhound bus station.

Photo By David Robert

“Do you have a dollar?”

“A dollar?”

“Yeah, they sell soup inside. I need something warm.”

“You can get soup for a dollar?”

“Yeah, they sell it inside. Really, they do.”

Inside the Greyhound Bus Station on Stevenson Street a few blocks from downtown Reno, Styrofoam tubs of dry Ramen noodle soup are sold. The woman adds water and cooks her soup in a microwave oven. Then she eats up.

When I meet Mildred “Millie” Bonilla, 35, she’s been in Reno for just a couple of days. She came on the bus from Seattle, where she says she was looking for her sister.

“But I didn’t find her,” Bonilla says.

In Reno, she hasn’t slept much.

“I stay up all night,” she says. “Then I sleep in here.”

Half a dozen individuals are sleeping in the bus station. It’s about 9 a.m.

Bonilla says that before she started hopping on buses and traveling around the West, she lived at an adult foster care facility in a rural area outside of Minneapolis, Minn.

“I was supposed to be staying there for six months,” she says. “And I like the country, but there was nothing to do but smoke cigarettes and sit outside. I wasn’t being very patient. Not patient. There’s a word for that. How do you say it?”


“Yeah, impatient. That’s what I was being. Plus I have some mentally ill problems.”

In Reno, nice people have been buying her beer at the Eldorado Hotel Casino. Bonilla says that last night she enjoyed listening to a band at Brew Brothers. She even signed up for a casino card, which she enjoys having. “It’s kind of neat, don’t you think?”

When well-intentioned individuals give Bonilla money, it actually keeps her from getting back to her social worker and support system in Minneapolis. Now, with assistance from Reno’s Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program, Bonilla’s trying to get home—back to Minnesota—again. The police officers who run HELP out of an office inside the Greyhound station have contacted Bonilla’s social worker, who controls the woman’s money. They’re confident that Bonilla could get home—if she’d just stay on the bus to Minneapolis. Bonilla looks a bit tired and disoriented as she eats her soup. It’s pretty likely that she’s been wearing the same clothes for several days. She keeps a few papers and her casino card in a lime green pouch buckled around her waist.

“You have lovely purple sunglasses,” I tell her.

“They match your coat,” says RN&R photo editor David Robert.

“Do you want them?” she asks, taking them off and handing them over.

Officer Jeff McCutcheon of the Reno Police Department interviews dozens of needy individuals every week. He helps many get a ride home.

Photo By David Robert

Bonilla is as generous as the nice people who give her money. When she gets back to Minnesota, she’s going to tell people there that Nevada is “a really beautiful state.”

“I met a few nice people who gave me money, then I said my goodbyes.”

Half a dozen folk stand outside the Greyhound Bus Station, huddled together in the doorway. Some smoke cigarettes. Some sit down on the sidewalk with their backs against the wall under just enough of the roof to protect them from the leaking sky, the drizzling wetness. Some of these travelers have tickets to their destinations. Phoenix, maybe, or New York City. Others hang out at the bus station to stay warm and dry. This is a story, mostly, about the latter group.

Inside the bus station, it is warm and dry. Inside the HELP office—not far from Greyhound’s customer service desk—a U2 song plays on the radio. Reminders are written on an erasable marker board, dates for meetings with the Reno Alliance for the Homeless and the upcoming homeless count on Nov. 20. A small photo of Mother Teresa is taped almost out of sight behind a desk.

“Must be that time of year,” Officer Jeff McCutcheon of the Reno Police Department tells me. “Everybody’s doing stories about the homeless.”

“It’s cold.”

“Yes, it’s cold and people want to know what we’re doing about the homeless. People like to feel good about themselves, I guess.”

Maybe you’ve heard about HELP. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Department and the Reno Police Department team up to buy bus tickets for homeless individuals who want to go back to the places they call home. The program started in 1994, when law enforcement officials decided that incarceration wasn’t the best or most cost effective solution to the homeless problem. Putting a homeless person up in the Washoe County Jail costs about $75 per night. The average bus ticket costs $68.

In October, the cops bought bus tickets for 71 individuals—each had a family member or friend waiting to take care of her in another place.

“We won’t send a homeless person to be homeless in another community,” McCutcheon says. “And this program is not meant for those who are able to help themselves by working and saving to buy their own bus ticket.”

A stack of applications with Polaroid photos attached shows the kinds of people that McCutcheon and his Sheriff’s Department counterpart Deputy J. Cox help. Some are women with substance abuse problems and mental health issues. Some have been battered. Some have children pictured with them. One young man is listed with the note: “Bi-polar, seems self-destructive.”

More than 90 percent of these individuals don’t return to Reno.

The cops can’t help everyone. Some young people come to Reno looking for work, or hoping to win a big jackpot. They have delusions of grandeur about the city, McCutcheon says. When they can’t find work or lose all their money, they come looking for an easy ride home.

“They say, ‘You mean you won’t get me a ticket because I’m not an alcoholic and I don’t have mental health problems?’ But this is not free bus tickets for anybody who’s trying to leave Reno.”

The HELP program does, however, give these young people a hook-up with a local employment agency. And the officers can also help set up shelter, so that an individual can actually save his earned money for the needed bus ticket.

Not that every person stranded in Reno is willing to do this.

“Some of our younger generation don’t want to work,” McCutcheon says.

The bushy-haired woman in sweatpants looks distraught to say the least. Her face is a bit red. Her eyes are puffy. She sits down in a chair in front of Officer McCutcheon’s desk and begins her story.

Six weeks ago, Shelley, a single mother of three, lost her Reno apartment. Not because she’d forgotten to pay rent, but because of a “misunderstanding over a dog.” When the landlord served her with a five-day eviction notice, she says she didn’t get it. The police came to her door one afternoon while she was cooking dinner for the kids. They told her that she had five minutes to vacate the house.

The 48-year-old now has nothing. She and her three kids have been living in the family’s uninsured, unregistered car and staying with friends whenever possible. Because her two young teenage sons are over 12, they can’t stay together at a shelter.

For the first few weeks, she had a plan. When she received her welfare and social security checks, she’d register and insure her car, then head to her best friend’s house in San Diego. She could live there while she got back on her feet.

A Greyhound patron gets some shut-eye at the bus station.

Photo By David Robert

The plan half worked. With her social security check, she registered and insured her car. But there was no money left for gas or food. She waited for her welfare check, but it never came. Her case had been assigned to a new social worker who sent the check to Shelley’s old address. It ended up lost in the mail.

“It takes six weeks for them to cut a replacement check,” she says. “I can’t live in the car for another six weeks.”

I watch the woman, suspecting she’s come to the wrong place. HELP does bus tickets. Unless this woman wants to sell her car …

“I’m not going to give you a tank of gas so you can get stranded somewhere else,” McCutcheon tells the woman.

“I need two tanks of gas.”

McCutcheon says he deals with a gas station that takes HELP vouchers. But that won’t help Shelley. She needs money to buy gas on the road.

“What’s your friend’s name? What’s her phone number?”

McCutcheon dials the San Diego number. He talks with a woman who has no money to help her friend out, but who can offer a place to live—two and a half tanks of gas away.

He then hands the phone across the desk and lets Shelley talk to her friend.

“I can’t do it,” Shelley says, sobbing. “I’m tired.”

McCutcheon makes more phone calls then, and by the time Shelley leaves, he’s arranged gas for the trip and a package of food from the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission.

After receiving her tearful thanks, he turns to me and asks what a reporter can possibly criticize about his program.

I’ll be darned if I can think of a thing.

“You’re too soft, maybe?” I say, knowing my co-workers would find this funny coming from a person who always gives panhandlers a buck or two.

“She’s got three kids. They’re living in their car. Mom comes in here broken down and crying, not knowing where to turn. Her car is outside, loaded with three kids, and she’s leaving here with money to complete her trip, food for the kids—you heard her say she’s hungry?—and a light at the end of the tunnel, her friend in San Diego.”

Outside the bus station, Dean Anderson smokes a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette and sucks on an orange lollipop. He wants me to know he has a bus ticket, an unlimited ride pass for November. He shows it to me. He’s careful with this rectangle of paper. If he loses it, Greyhound won’t issue him a new one. And this pass, in a way, doubles as his month’s rent.

Since 1997, he says he’s always had a ticket.

It’s a brilliant idea, if you stop to think about it. Anderson, 55, gets a $975 social security check each month. He spends about $400—less in the off-season, more during the summer rush—on an all-you-can-ride Greyhound bus ticket for the month. And he travels. Last week, he was in Dallas. Now he’s in Reno, but by the time this comes out in print, Anderson plans to be in New York City. His check didn’t come this month, and New York City is the best place to go if you want to get an emergency check cut in a short time.

“I’ll get there, hang around the bus station for a few days and they’ll make me an emergency check.”

Usually Anderson’s check comes to his post office box in Reno. He considers Reno his home base, in a sense, though he’s lived and worked in cities across the country. When asked where he lives, he motions with his hand.

“There and there and there.”

Dean Anderson

Photo By David Robert

The first time he came to Reno was in 1962—in his father’s car. It’s not that he exactly fell in love with the town.

“As a child, I didn’t know what I was looking at.”

As a young man, after leaving the military, Anderson went to college to study journalism, he tells me. “That was my first love.” But thing fell apart. Anderson worked many jobs. Most of them were janitorial. He describes these gigs by leaning over subserviently and making the motions of a person sweeping up.

“Excuse me, sir, ‘scuse me,” he says, mockingly. Then he starts to chuckle. “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.” It’s a deep, throaty, contagious laugh.

Anderson is full of stories. He tells of working at the World Trade Center and meeting Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan. He talks of his four ex-wives and episodes of domestic abuse. When Anderson loses his temper, it seems he also loses women and jobs. He’s worked as a ticket agent and in the baggage claim at Miami International Airport. But he lost that job when he hit his wife. He lost another job right here at the Greyhound Bus Station in Reno.

“I struck the [man who is] now general manager. I hit him in the ‘70s. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh. He got on my nerves real bad. That’s why they don’t like me hanging around here. … I refused to play by their rules.”

These days, even his mother won’t talk to him. That’s OK, though. His family, ex-wives and children will all change their tune when he wins a million dollars in the casinos.

“I invested $300 in the machines [during this trip to Reno],” he says. “I didn’t win. The best I’ve done is when I played seven nickels and won $1,500. I was just lucky that day.”

That day was back in 1997. That’s the year Anderson started buying bus tickets.

“I sleep on the bus; I eat on the bus,” he says. In between bus rides, he has enough money for cheap motel rooms. And when that money’s gone?

“I sleep at the mission; I eat at the mission.”

It’s easy to see that McCutcheon loves his job. Interviewing five or six people a day—and helping about half of them—is as rewarding a career as you’d find in law enforcement, he says.

He’s been in the office for five years. Before then, he was a beat cop. A staunch Catholic, he’d been bragging about Mother Teresa to a fellow officer who served as a deacon in a local Southern Baptist church. Then, when the job at the bus station came open, he cracked a joke about it.

“I said, ‘Gosh, can you imagine being the homeless officer full time?’ And he said to me, ‘What about this Mother Teresa you’re always talking about?’ Then I felt guilty, and I thought I should put in for it. … No one else applied.”

When I tell him Anderson’s story about bus tickets, McCutcheon smiles in appreciation of the man’s intriguing plan.

“I wish we could help everybody,” he says.

It’s especially hard to help an individual who isn’t looking for help.

One of his most memorable clients was a man with mental health problems whose family had been searching for him for eight or nine years.

“They didn’t know he was alive. They didn’t sell the family home or change the family phone number in case he tried to call home. … We were able to get him back, and that year, the family was all able to get together for Christmas for the first time in years. When you’re able to reconnect a family like that, there’s nothing more rewarding that I can think of doing.”

Of course, he agrees that buying a bus ticket for an addicted or ill individual won’t solve many underlying problems. There have to be programs to help an individual once he gets back to his support system.

“Without programs, we’re just shuffling them along,” he says.

Without a permanent homeless shelter in Reno, it’s kind of hard to reach people with needed programs here.

“But darn it, we’re working on that, too,” McCutcheon says. “Our city’s very serious about that now. A shelter doesn’t solve problems either, though.”

If he were a homeless man thousands of miles from home and faced with the choice of starting recovery programs here in Reno or back “home” where friends and families can help with recovery, he’d take the bus ticket.

“Send me home, any day," he says, "where people are surrounding me and caring for me."