Pray it forward

The Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission’s Tammy Treadwell helps provide a refuge for women in difficulty

Tammy Treadwell and assistant Sheila Runolfson go over intake paperwork for the night’s women.

Tammy Treadwell and assistant Sheila Runolfson go over intake paperwork for the night’s women.

Photo By David Robert

Dinnertime at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission.

The sun dips below the downtown casinos. An abrupt chill sets in on Record Street, a few blocks east of where downtown high-rises give way to the drearier part of Fourth Street. A couple dozen women gather on a curb across the street from the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission’s modern, new building to wait for a hot meal.

At this time last year, there were two homeless shelters in Reno for men and none for women. A third men’s shelter, funded by the city and run by the gospel mission, opened last November.

This winter, things will be a little easier for women who need a place to stay. The gospel mission opened a women’s shelter in August.

The Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission provides emergency shelter to as many people as it can accommodate, and it will dish out a free dinner to anyone who shows up hungry (unless they’re intoxicated, in which case they’re shown the door).

A heavy, middle-aged woman shows up in a day-glo-pink sports bra and no jacket. She’s incoherent. She’s obviously drunk, and she’s throwing around enough attitude to put an edge in what was, a minute ago, a peaceful, congenial atmosphere.

“We don’t have a place for you,” says Women’s Services coordinator Tammy Treadwell, with as much kindness in her voice as there is conviction.

“I don’t feel like dealing with that,” Treadwell says quietly once the woman is out of earshot. End of story. If the woman shows up again sober, she’ll get another chance. Tonight, she’s on her own. Treadwell knows how to keep order in the place, and people who don’t meet her halfway by showing up sober are not her concern.

“For some people, it’s just not their time,” she says. God will send them over again when they’re ready, she figures. Meanwhile, as the live-in manager of the gospel mission’s women’s shelter, she has enough to contend with.

Treadwell goes through bags of donated women’s coats.

Photo By David Robert

A desperate need
Before the shelter opened in August, it sometimes was possible to find a space on the floor at the men’s shelter that used to be on Arlington Avenue, but this is the first one in Reno that specifically offers emergency accommodations for women and children. It houses 18 full-time residents, who participate, often by court order, in the Christian Addiction Recovery and Education Program, a residential, year-and-a-half-long curriculum for those hoping to get the legal, practical and spiritual aspects of their lives straightened out. A new residential program that aims to help mothers regain custody of their children is just getting underway in the same house.

The shelter also sleeps up to 19 “overnight clients.” (It was 18 until recently; someone found a clever way to wedge in another trundle bed.)

Of the estimated 450 Renoites who are homeless on a given night, about 50 of them are women, says Rick Redding, executive director of the gospel mission.

“Historically, women have a greater opportunity to be absorbed into other housing situations,” he says. In some instances, that means they have friends or family to stay with, but sometimes, the news is not so good. “It’s sad to say, but a lot of them have hooked up with a guy just to get a roof over their heads.”

While women may end up homeless for a number of reasons—lost a job; been hooked on meth—some come to the shelter because they’ve reached the final straw of an abusive relationship.

In any case, Treadwell frequently finds herself called upon for support.

“It’s like being called ‘Mom’ by 20 grown women,” says the effervescent 40-something-year-old who can sport a big, warm smile even when her eyes are starting to glaze over with sleepiness. A mother and grandmother, she exudes the patience of someone who’s in perpetual demand but still loves her job. She can dispense love and compassion in generous portions to strangers who need it, but, as a graduate of the program she now runs, she’s been around the block enough times to not take anyone’s bullshit.

After the dismissal of the underdressed drunk woman, however, no one is giving her any.

Come in from the cold
The women wait patiently outside until it’s time to eat. Some greet each other warmly. ("Hi! Did you take the Spirit bus?") Some keep to themselves. Some look maybe one degree more weathered than the average suburban rat-racer, carrying daypacks and wearing jackets that were warm enough till night started falling. Some look tired and withdrawn. One woman wears shoes more suited to Florida than Reno and carries a plastic shopping bag. A few tote their possessions in large, rolling suitcases.

Treadwell looks for a video to show to the women.

Photo By David Robert

When it’s time to come in, they file through a small, fluorescent-lit lobby. Treadwell, who’s been fueled mostly on coffee and a few crackers since 5 a.m., maintains an air of warmth and authority, greeting everyone, many by name.

The handful of staffers on duty, all men, are friendly, too. If they’re disturbed by the sociopolitical ramifications of homelessness or the hard-luck stories they contend with daily, it doesn’t show at the moment. Their attitude is more like, “I’m a people person.” Their affable demeanors soften the atmosphere of the sparse, institutional-feeling lobby, and the aroma of roasted chicken with a hint of curry gives the place a sense of downright pleasantness.

Before entering the cafeteria, the women assemble briefly in the adjacent chapel, a no-frills hall of worship that looks like a storefront church, only without the windows. Two women in their early 20s—one softspoken, one spunky, both mothers, both full-time “programmers"—read the house rules from a pink clipboard: No drugs or alcohol. You’re required to take a shower when you arrive at the shelter. No nudity in the bunk room. No food in the bunk room. No disrespecting others.

They pray for the new arrivals by reciting the mercifully brief and potentially comforting John 3:17: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

“Amen,” replies the group, in unison, then files into the bright, clean dining area, where cheerful cooks heap their plates with chicken, braised vegetables and ice-cream-scoop portions of fried rice. The food—some donated, some purchased by the gospel mission—is plentiful. There’s a gigantic bowl of salad topped with fresh sprouts. There are cans of soda, large, insulated containers of coffee and cranberry juice and a couple gallons of low-fat milk. Pumpkin pie, ice cream and oversized muffins are in abundance.

Treadwell is a little late to the dinner line—she’s been outside, giving someone advice—but she has a schedule to keep. She sits down, takes a split second to bow her head and whisper a few words of grace, keeps up her end of two casual conversations at once as she wolfs down her chicken, then dashes off to begin traffic-directing the rest of the evening.

Jesus at the helm
After dinner, a staff member, who sits below a framed painting of Jesus, hands Treadwell a clipboard. She checks the sign-up sheet to see how many women have requested a bed for the night. There are a few new arrivals and a handful of names on the waiting list, those who’ve already reached their monthly limit of seven nights but will be allowed a bed after newcomers are accommodated. It looks like the shelter will be nearly full tonight.

The gospel mission’s van shuttles the women over to the shelter, a large, stucco house with an intimidating fence. Inside, they’ll find necessities and a few modest comforts. Winter coats and bins of bras and socks are kept in a corner of a small office. Hotel soaps and other toiletries wait in a bathroom with two showers. Seven bunk beds, all in the same newly finished room, are stacked two high, neatly made with tucked-in corners and a stuffed animal or two. A separate bedroom is crammed wall-to-wall with beds for children and moms.

The décor is sparse, but the walls are freshly painted and the faux-wood flooring and simple bathroom fixtures are brand new. Residents from the gospel mission’s men’s homes pitched in to help renovate what was previously the worn-out interior of a different organization’s men’s shelter.

Though meals are only served at the Record Street facility, the women’s shelter has a break room stacked with snacks, mostly compliments of the Northern Nevada Food Bank. Grocery stores also donate food that they can’t sell, such as half-filled cans of soda or just-expired cookies and snack cakes.

Sheila Runolfson places a teddy bear on each bed for each night.

Photo By David Robert

A 68-year-old woman named Dorothy, whose glitter-flecked nail polish is chipping off, says the shelter takes on a congenial aspect at night.

“There’s the normal give-and-take of having several people in one area,” she says. But being in close quarters doesn’t tend to lead to major problems. “There’s a lot of peer pressure to conform,” Dorothy says. House rules prohibit cursing or arguing.

Treadwell mentions that things can get hectic as everyone settles in for the evening, but the demands are likely to be along the lines of five people at once saying, “Where can I find some socks?” For the most part, the women are interested in finding relief from a stressful day and getting some sleep. Most unwind by watching a movie.

Dorothy, who says she prefers to find a quiet place to read or do needlework, is often on the shelter’s waiting list. She declines to mention her last name, and she doesn’t want to elaborate on the details of her last permanent living arrangement, which involved a relationship that was “not working out.” But she talks openly about some of the conflicting feelings that she experiences as a frequent overnighter. She doesn’t like the idea of having to accept too much help, and she wonders if maybe the gospel mission is too generous.

“I was overwhelmed. I didn’t expect there was so much offered. Maybe it’s too pleasant. People staying on too long. I’m included.”

On the other hand, she’s spent a couple nights on the street and would like to avoid doing that again. “That wasn’t very pleasant,” she says. “Most people out there are very nice, but there are a few who are trying to make things difficult.” She says she hardly slept during those nights on a bus-stop bench for fear of theft or injury.

Helping hands
In the morning, Treadwell leads the women back to Record Street for a chapel service and breakfast. The shelter is closed during the day. Those who want to return will have to carry their possessions with them and return in the evening to sign up again. During the day, some of the women will try to seek out jobs or apartments, but Treadwell says many are mentally unstable or otherwise ill-equipped to solve their housing problems.

Some of the women will wander around town, maybe spend some time at the public library.

“A lot of them will just hang out,” Treadwell laments.

She knows success is not a given. Not every woman in her charge will make it back to a stable lifestyle. Some never had one to begin with. Stories of abusive upbringings and teenage years spent on the streets are prevalent.

Gospel mission executive director Rick Redding accepts that homelessness is not a problem that’s likely to be solved. He says, “The founder of our faith, Jesus, said you’re always going to have the homeless and poor with you.”

So his organization does what it can to help. Which, lately, is a lot. With grants and donations from the city, the county, the federal government and private foundations, the gospel mission serves about 750 meals a day and provides shelter and clothing to those who most need it. Plans are underway to break ground in December for a medical center on what is now a dirt lot at the Record Street campus.

For Treadwell’s part, the strength she gains from God—"You see his fingerprints all over this place"—and successes of those who do find a job or graduate from the 18-month recovery program help keep her afloat through the setbacks.

“I love dealing with people,” she says. “I love to see people changed. I love to see people get a job. I love to see that light go on. It brings tears to my eyes,” she says, smiling with pride and a little misty-eyed at the thought.