Moving targets

Reno could nab federal grants to help with the homeless, but they need to be counted firs

Former HP computer technician Michael Andreja (left) lost almost everything during the past year. He and a friend, who were waiting at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen, number among the area homeless.

Former HP computer technician Michael Andreja (left) lost almost everything during the past year. He and a friend, who were waiting at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen, number among the area homeless.

Photo By David Robert

Last year, Michael Andreja’s biggest concern was which designer sweater he would buy at Nordstrom. Today, he wonders when he will get his next meal.

“In the last year, everything has gone upside down,” Andreja said.

Within the span of just a few months, he lost his job, his wife and child left him, and he had to abandon his broken vehicle.

Andreja, 49, a former Hewlett-Packard computer technician earning an annual salary of $35,000, now struggles to earn at least $175 a week at a temp agency to cover his basic living expenses—$125 for his weekly hotel rate, $12.50 for his weekly bus fare and the rest for food and necessities.

As he looked at the recently constructed downtown apartments, he noted that even most “low-income” housing requires deposits that are out of his financial reach.

If Andreja had family somewhere, he might qualify for a free bus trip by the Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program, a joint effort between Reno and Washoe County law enforcement agencies. The HELP program, which has gained national attention and is being emulated in other cities, boasts a high success rate of reuniting the homeless with their primary sources of support. The HELP program, though, isn’t useful to Andreja.

“I have no one to go back to,” he said.

Consolidating efforts
Andreja is one of hundreds of individuals struggling to survive—to find or keep a place to stay, to get enough to eat—in this community. Because he lives in a hotel, paying rent by the week, he is counted among the area’s homeless population.

Just how many homeless folk are sleeping in Reno?

It’s hard to say. Counting them has long been troublesome.

A precise census is needed for area-wide homeless service providers to obtain $350,000 in Housing and Urban Development grant funds. Last year, the federal grant was revoked due to an insufficient count.

So state and local government agencies, along with several homeless advocacy groups, banded together under the new umbrella, Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless.

Last spring, RAAH tallied a count of 660 homeless people based on a survey of all the local homeless service providers. Last week, a more grass-roots count of the homeless took place, with volunteers scouring the area in the early morning hours, counting the homeless hanging out on park benches, sleeping along the river, receiving services at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen, camping in Sparks and staying in weekly hotels. Those numbers will be tabulated and verified before being released to the public next month.

One of the challenges the group faces is to determine the most accurate means of counting the homeless, a population that is transient and tends to wander among service providers. RAAH is using different counting strategies while trying to avoid duplication.

“We’re trying to move from guessing to knowing,” said United Way President Anne Cory, who is coordinating the RAAH efforts.

Drop-in dilemma II
Besides uniting the various services, RAAH is also attempting to develop community support on a location for a single homeless drop-in center, something that’s been in the works for more than a decade.

At a RAAH meeting held after the homeless counting expedition, Cory told providers that a new location for a possible homeless services facility is being considered on 3.5 acres along East Fourth and Commercial Row. Previous controversial proposals included placing a homeless facility on Sage Street near Reno Disposal or at the Nevada Mental Health Institute on Galletti Way. The group discussed promoting site beautification of the proposed new facility to convince neighboring businesses to welcome it.

Beautification is important in other ways, too. Andreja said that his surroundings often depress him.

“Sometimes I feel like I am living in a prison,” he said of his living quarters in a Reno hotel. “And when you go to [homeless shelters and soup kitchens], you see despair all around you.”

While Andreja numbers among the working poor, the majority of Reno’s homeless individuals—about 70 percent by RAAH’s estimate—have mental health or substance abuse problems.

Arturs Elevans, 49, who joined Andreja and hundreds of others last week for a free meal provided by the St. Vincent’s Dining Room, said he is on disability for mental illness. For Elevans, it’s a challenge just to fill out the forms necessary to get assistance.

“There is too much red tape,” Elevans said. “I got so frustrated that I tore up all of the paperwork, and now I’m not getting my disability payments.”

A homeless service facility would serve as an outreach to the mentally ill, said Kelly Marschall, a consultant and RAAH facilitator. She envisions a facility that would be close to the homeless population, help to feed and cloth individuals and offer other services, from a place to store possessions to an office to coordinate job referrals.

The current separation of services, with people walking all over Reno to eat, find clothes, sleep, get medical treatment and find jobs, is an invisible barrier to the homeless, Marschall said. And having a shelter is only humanitarian.

“The alternative is for people to sleep in their cars or along the river,” she said.

Andreja and Elevans say they look forward to the holidays. They heard that might be hiring seasonally in Fernley. But for now, they are just taking it one day at a time.

“When I wake up in the mornings, I search for breakfast," Andreja said. "Then I wonder how I’m going to get work."