Outrage only gets us so far
There are some things we’d all rather not think about, given the choice—things like where the homeless sleep in the wintertime, or who takes care of the mentally ill man walking down Virginia Street ranting at someone who is present only in his mind. Where, exactly, does he go to eat a meal? Where does he sleep?
We gingerly step around or away from these citizens when we encounter them downtown or along the river. We know they are people who need help, but we are wary and uncomfortable.
Last month, the usually hidden crisis of care for the homeless and mentally ill of Reno burst out of the shadows thanks to media accounts of their living conditions. The temporary overflow shelter, housing more than 100 homeless men and women, flooded and had to be closed when the landlord declined to make repairs. Vandals had robbed the shelter of copper pipes, wires and a gas meter leaving it without heat or running water. Occupants of the overflow shelter were moved temporarily back to the central homeless shelter on Record Street but there were no available beds. Overflow residents had to try to sleep sitting up.
Social media erupted with indignant outrage at the situation, demanding immediate action and demonizing shelter officials as cold-hearted and cruel. Within a few days, a new location was found and city officials began negotiating a lease. Community agencies explored temporary solutions for the overflow residents to lie down and sleep without violating fire codes, satisfying critics who moved along to their next episode of righteous indignation.
That same week the Reno Gazette-Journal published an investigation by reporter Anjeanette Damon into group homes for the mentally ill, operated by Project Uplift. Walking through a house rented to the organization by a Sparks family, Damon found squalor and unsafe living conditions even though state staff had been conducting monthly walk-through inspections.
The article effectively laid out the pressure the group home operator was under to expand the business to house more clients, despite the difficulty in hiring suitable and sufficient staff and maintaining the homes in decent living conditions given the constraints of the state budget and the difficulty in billing for services. Of course, that’s no excuse for the filth and lack of adequate care, but it helps to explain why inspectors didn’t immediately close the substandard facilities. There was nowhere else for the clients to go.
In response to the RGJ investigation, state officials immediately launched an effort to independently inspect each group home where mentally ill people are housed within a week, pledging to do more to ensure the health and welfare of this vulnerable population through better regulatory oversight.
Social media was once again aghast at the situation, wondering how these festering problems could have been overlooked for so long.
To understand these two incidents, we have to put them into context. Nevada has a long tradition of under-investing in human services, lurching from crisis to crisis in safety net programs instead of finding, and funding, comprehensive solutions. While it’s tempting to heap blame on a chosen scapegoat and demand action, the real challenge is how to fund permanent supported housing where services wrap around vulnerable populations as they live in the community.
The cheaper, easier, out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach is more typical of Nevada’s approach. We just do enough to keep mental health and homelessness in the shadows where we don’t have to dwell on it too hard or too long. As pressure for housing at the bottom rungs of the income scale increases with new workers attracted by economic development activity, it’s likely more ugly situations will be exposed.
Let’s stop being outraged by it and start solving it.