Rethinking homelessness

David Burgio is a family nurse practitioner at Health Access Washoe County, a free medical clinic for the homeless.

Homelessness conjures up many images. The poor pathetic woman in the street asking for food for her child. The lazy bum bothering us for money to feed his alcohol habit. Which of these is the true picture?

It would be naïve to say that the second case doesn’t exist. My experience as a family nurse practitioner at the HAWC Outreach Clinic for the past four years, though, has shown that it is the minority of cases. Every day, we see homeless patients come into our clinic hoping for help without a disapproving look or a snide comment. Most would love to be able to pay and not ask for handouts.

Then why are they not “paying their way?”

Sometimes it’s just bad luck. A marriage or relationship went wrong. A job was lost. A person was stranded in Reno. Most of our homeless clientele have physical or mental problems that keep them from getting or keeping jobs. Often it’s a triad of gambling, drugs and alcohol abuse. Frequently, it’s mental illness. The National Coalition for the Homeless states that about 65 percent of the homeless have addiction disorders. About 20 to 25 percent of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness. Reno has the added misfortune of the lure of the casinos. Free alcohol and the promise of riches will deplete a paycheck pretty fast.

Homelessness is everyone’s problem. When a man without insurance goes to the emergency room and runs up a $10,000 bill, it must be written off by the hospital. If he had received preventative services, this might not have happened. When a woman abuses her kids because she didn’t get psychological or substance abuse counseling, that also costs society in the long run.

We put people in jail to get them off the street. In Washoe County, it costs $74 a day, I’m told, to keep someone in jail. Providing basic shelter costs a quarter of that. The saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” comes to mind.

The Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless and a community leaders group led by the United Way have met for almost a year to address homeless issues, including the men’s drop-in shelter situation. After 10 years, plans for a permanent shelter are coming to fruition. Whether it is at Sage Street or near the Nevada Mental Health Institute campus, what’s important is that it will be up and running—and that the Morrill Street building will be retired.

I hope our community has learned from its mistakes. A good shelter must be adequately funded, provide basic services and have a professional and caring staff. A few years ago, people at Reno’s only homeless drop-in center were made to sit up at a table all night—no lying down or taking off shoes. The health problems and personal suffering were unconscionable. Today, we have more public support for helping those in need. You can assist by donating money, time or oversight to prevent abuse and neglect in the future.

Can we stop homelessness? No. But we can lessen its effect on society by our participation in the process.