Shelter skelter

If Northern Nevadans want to heal homelessness, it’s time to move from Band-aids to permanent solutions

When the National Alliance to End Homelessness released new statistics on Jan. 10, nine states—including Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington—were cited as having the highest ratio of homeless people per capita.

Nationally, Nevada comes in second, after Washington, D.C., which places us first (or dead last, depending on your viewpoint) among the states with the highest percentage of homeless people.

Time to get real. Chronic homelessness is nothing new in Reno—though the face of those without secure shelter is changing. Our focus—as a community—must turn from disseminating and discussing statistics, toward identifying and empowering those individuals and entities that are creating, implementing and maintaining solutions. Alliance president Nan Roman calls it as she sees it.

“The solution to homelessness is housing,” Roman says. “Increasing the availability of affordable housing to very-low-income people will prevent homelessness and will empty our nation’s shelters.”

At Family Promise of Reno/Sparks, formerly known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network of the Truckee Meadows, executive director Elizabeth Dorway shatters old stereotypes that contribute to homelessness—substance and gambling addictions, domestic violence, crime and overcrowding—by shedding light on the alarmingly increasing demographic, chronically besieged by a vicious cycle of low wages and high housing costs, now shaping the new profile of homelessness in the Biggest Little City.

“I can tell you what our reality is,” Dorway explains. “Almost all of the homeless we come in contact with were unable to pay rent, or something came up medically and they didn’t have insurance, sick time or vacation time. Hence, they didn’t get a paycheck. There’s no ability for savings, either. They don’t have anything to fall back on. The first budget cut is food. For Nevada, it’s really a systemic problem for basic needs. There needs to be more subsidy programs for rent. It’s heavy when you try to get someone back into an apartment instead of helping them stay where they are. Prevention is [key].”

With a master’s degree in social work from the University of Nevada, Reno, Dorway also worries about a critical void, common in the long-term unraveling leading to abrupt homelessness.

“They don’t have a support system. That’s what separates those who become homeless from those who don’t. That’s true for our society, more than we acknowledge. We like to drive into our garage and not think about what’s happening to the person next door.”

But for the Truckee Meadows’ working poor—evicted, perhaps ill, perpetually hungry—those attitudes add insult to injury. Moreover, closer examination by the National Alliance and the Family Promise reveals that Sierra Pacific Power, Southwest Gas, car insurance and other basic bills are what send on-the-brink homeless people over the brink. Not everyone who struggles fritters away their hard-earned, honest-work-for-honest-pay, minimum wages. For families experiencing under- or unemployment, for those families sleeping in their car, for those needing medicine, surgery or hospitalization, for those men, women and children suffering on the cold streets of Reno and Sparks, details like their credit score are not on the top of their list of priorities.

Alliance director Roman’s emphasis on prevention is a vital element for solutions, just one part of a successful formula for reducing Reno’s homeless population. Stemming the impact of factors that contribute to homelessness, providing lower rental properties, and heading off eviction seem like a good place to start.

“It is definitely time to make some common-sense changes so that renters aren’t pushed out on the streets,” U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote in an e-mail. “It’s the right thing to do. However, revising Nevada statutes is an issue that must be taken up at the state level. On a national level, funding for homeless projects [has] been significantly reduced. Only recently did the Bush administration begin addressing the issue.”

Home of the future
In Northern Nevada’s burgeoning communities, Fernley offers affordable, brand-new homes in booming housing developments. Dayton is thriving with Citizens for Affordable Housing, its successful alternative to big-city housing costs. Just across the border, in Truckee, Calif., a new trend is taking shape.

Rick Mockler at Muir Commons in Davis thinks the way we live our lives and the homes we build are related matters.

CoHousing Partners seeks to create “a healthy blend of privacy and community,” and this contemporary approach is based on Danish and centuries-old housing concepts that are proven successes. Cohousing, to simplify, is a type of collaborative housing in which residents help with neighborhood design and operation.

Cohousing residents live as a community. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.

Winning design awards in California, the Nevada City, Calif.-based firm is connecting with prospective buyers in Truckee who believe in the concept enough to build it, and plans are underway for a 32-home, cohousing neighborhood on a 2.75-acre site across the Truckee River from the city’s historic downtown district. The community will include townhomes and flats, in a price range of $290,000-$600,000; costs that are considered competitive to housing prices in the Reno-Sparks metro area. With a background in non-profit community development, community-based conflict resolution and mediation, CoHousing Partners vice president Rick Mockler, his wife and two children live in Muir Commons, America’s first cohousing community, in Davis, Calif.

“We have such a robust community life,” Mockler says. “It’s such a nurturing environment. Just from seeing what a great experience this was, first-hand, when I had the opportunity and was making a career transition a couple years ago, I jumped at the chance to work with [CoHousing Partners president] Katie Michiko McCamant and [company chairman] Jim Leach and start this new venture, to expand cohousing in California. I’ve just been so happy with the vitality of the community life, the energy and the quality of the people that live in our cohousing. It’s a great experience, both for my family and the children and elders thriving in our neighborhood.”

Citing traditional and tribal society shelter models from around the globe, CoHousing Partners brings it on home, on a daily basis.

“We really believe that developing neighborhoods requires particular skills,” notes Mockler. “Any bright person can acquire those skills, but we really believe that to do cohousing you have to have a passion for building relationships and a passion around environmental sustainability. Every culture has ways of building community, and, in the European tradition, that would be through the village square or the coffeehouse, the neighborhood pub or the marketplace. In villages in Mexico, it might be the zócalo, the very center of town. It’s really the social gathering place, the nexus of the market and the church.”

Mockler hints that deadly-sin greed, coupled with the urge to one-up the Joneses, has contributed to the way America’s gotten too big for its britches, in terms of homebuilding. The spirit of cohousing, he explains, comes with an emphasis on responsible down-sizing.

“Americans in the last 50 years have really zoned public spaces almost out of existence. We have shopping malls, but we don’t really have effective gathering places for people to come together. Our urban design emphasizes private homes and businesses—to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a nuance to it. The solution, I think, is the value [of] simplicity. There’s an illusion in America that material things bring happiness and fulfillment. Americans are lonely. We live in a culture where people are trying to meet their needs through electronic entertainment and material consumption. Cohousing comes from a completely different place. Our belief is that community and meaningful human relationships create happiness and fulfillment. [CoHousing Partners does] represent an absolutely opposite value of what’s driving the sprawl of McMansions, and continuing to cut away at our social safety net.”

A new road in Reno?
Mockler firmly believes that cohousing could thrive in the Truckee Meadows, providing laid-back lifestyles for homeowners and being a part of a solution by decreasing homelessness.

“I know there’s [no cohousing] in the Reno area,” he observes. “I think it’s definitely feasible to develop something like this in Reno. Speaking for ourselves, it wouldn’t be something that we would be able to take on for a couple of years because we’re really focusing more on California. But I think our experience is that once people discover cohousing and see how it enriches their lives, the demand only increases. There are no existing cohousing communities in Nevada right now. I think every community, city or state, is different and cultures vary, but there are successful cohousing communities in Salt Lake City, in red states as well as blue states. I think it’s just a matter of time [before Reno does], frankly.”

Mockler is stunned at Nevada’s finish at the top of the homeless charts, here in what remains the fastest-growing state in the nation. Our homeless stats are the hemorrhoids on a bigger, uglier beast.

“My take on Nevada’s status is that it’s no coincidence that the U.S. has the biggest private homes in the world, and also has one of the highest homelessness rates in the world,” says Mockler. “Our priorities as a society are completely skewed. At some point, we have to face reality. It’s unsustainable to keep building these mega-homes and at the same time, ignoring millions of children and adults who don’t have a decent place to sleep at night. Cohousing isn’t the solution by itself, but it’s part of a larger vision: that quality of life is premised not on how big your house is, [but] on having a comfortable place to live and, with that, a community of support around you.”

According to Mockler, both Nevada and the United States’ working poor are continuing their economic downward spiral, making critical choices between two basic human rights.

Habitat for Humanity’s Christine Price says home ownership does more that provide shelter—the people who live in their own homes have a higher success rate and their children learn better.

Photo By David Robert

“They’re hard-working yet don’t have the resources to make ends meet. The reality is most people give up. They’ll cut back on their food budget before they stop paying rent. Most people are going hungry before giving up their place to live. It’s that dire.”

What price prevention?
Leaning against the tailgate of an old turquoise truck on a sunny Super Bowl weekend, Truckee Meadows Habitat for Humanity executive director Christine Price—significantly more director than executive—endeavors to be part of the solution, too. This get-together is a bit outside the realm of Reno’s more popular tailgates in terms of its purpose, and the set is Habitat’s Mt. Charleston Street build site in Stead, where a crew of two dozen passionate, Burning Man refugees/weekend builders are making it happen.

“The buyers actually have to put in 500 hours, minimum, to help build this house and the houses of others,” Price says over the hammering, drilling and teamwork it takes to install windows, walls and the roof on the five, single-family dwellings going up across the street from Job Corps.

Clad in Department of Public Works, Black Rock City, Nev., T-shirts and hoodies, the men and women of Burners Without Borders are doing their part—one dwelling at a time—to decreasing homelessness in Reno.

“When they’re done,” Price explains, “we hope that we can keep the cost below about $100,000, which in this market is pretty good. But we do that with donated labor, donated materials and a lot of prayers.”

Forces greater than herself are at the core of New Yorker Jo Walthall’s decision to join Burners Without Borders. A cancer survivor from NYC’s upper west side who attended her first Burning Man last fall, Walthall says she didn’t know about Nevada’s shameful homelessness statistic—but here she is, helping prevent homelessness in Reno.

“After I got out of bed, I decided I wanted to make people happy and make me happy, and this is one of them,” Walthall says. “I didn’t realize you had a [homeless] problem. I think of Nevada as having very low taxes, gambling, a beautiful place to live. I think of New York when I think of the homeless because they live in the park, outside, and they’re freezing. I think of urban situations. I would never have picked Reno that’s in need of housing. But I think the whole world is that way. I’ve seen the slums of Calcutta, I’ve lived in Asia, and I’m seeing the same things in New York City. I don’t know that the government can do it—except us.”

The Habitat homes that Walthall helped construct have 6-inch-thick, with Styrofoam, concrete-filled walls, according to Price.

“They’re going to be here long after we’re all gone. We build with this material because of sound barriers we need near the Stead Airport. They’re extremely energy-efficient, which makes it very easy for families to maintain without much additional costs out of their budget.”

Like Mockler, Price’s background includes the enlightening spectrum of blessings and curses in an arena light on the lucrative, though heavy on the warm-fuzzy factor.

"[I’m] a non-profit junkie,” she says, smiling. “I’d worked with several other non-profits; wonderful organizations here in town. But when I found Habitat for Humanity, it was a fit for me because we’re dealing with permanent solutions for families.”

While Habitat for Humanity brings a pound of cure for Renoites every year, those solutions, Price admits, do not come easily. That’s why it’s called sweat equity, just one of the minimum requirements to qualify for a Habitat home.

“It’s still a challenge. Raising money is the most exhausting part of my job. I know what we’re doing is important, but convincing people that that’s where they should invest their donor dollar is very difficult. I’m a little prejudiced—this is a permanent situation. The faster we get these built the better, because once people become homeowners, it’s proven that their kids do better in school. They’re twice as likely to go to college. Homeowners are better employees; they don’t call in sick as much. So we know that it improves our society at every level.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada says housing is on his own list of priorities.

Photo By

Sen. Reid agrees that across-the-board solutions mean getting at the root of homelessness and tempering the out-of-control cost of living.

“More needs to be done to lift up Nevada families,” writes Reid. “That means increasing access to education, making health care more affordable and increasing the minimum wage—which the Senate just did. There is more work ahead, and as the majority leader of the Senate, I will do everything I can do improve the lives of all Nevadans, and take action on legislation that I believe will help reduce the number of homeless people in our state and across the country.”

Price says Habitat is committed to uncovering just how bad it is for working families in poverty—and out of their apartments and homes.

“Sometimes you have to have the statistics so that people realize just how big the problem is,” she says. “So they both have a place. A lot of the way we deal with our homeless population is temporary shelters, temporary housing. We need to look at permanent ways to fix it and break the cycle that unfortunately a lot of families are in.”

While the bulk of Habitat for Humanity’s clients are not necessarily homeless, yet in great probability headed directly toward homelessness, Price agrees that prevention is key to how well we flourish in eradicating homelessness here.

“We need to work together as a community [with] a multi-level approach,” she says. “What works for one family is not necessarily going to work for others. Obviously, [Habitat is] dealing with a certain segment of the population, what we consider the working poor: people who are working hard and trying to get by, but because of high-market rents they can’t get out of that cycle. If you put all the great minds together, we can solve this problem. And we’re doing a good job. We can always do better, and there’s room for other agencies, a different approach and help[ing] additional people.”

To do that, she says, we must come together, right now.

“There are not enough resources in this area. We all work tons of hours for very low pay. You don’t get into this business for money, [but] because you have a passion for helping people. This time of year—for any of the shelters—is an exhausting time. Funds are low, you’re trying to make ends meet and meet the needs of clients.”

Habitat for Humanity is currently looking for buyers for two homes, and Price says they won’t have to look long or far. There’s an overabundance of qualified families whose current living conditions are based on need, high rent, overcrowding or unsafe housing.

“If they’re in a low-income situation, they’re probably in sub-standard housing, in some manner. Most of our families are at a point where they’re a little bit more stable than being homeless. They need to have a stable job, stable income and commit the 500 hours. It depends on what your definition of homeless is. I have families who are living with other family members, living in group situations and whatnot. Anyone who doesn’t have a permanent location to lay their head down and feel safe at night [fits] my definition. It’s maybe not the technical or legal definition.”

Next door neighbors
“It’s an urban-design question,” says Mockler. “People living in close proximity to one another can either be a negative or a positive. If people are feeling crowded, resentful and alienated, then it can breed all the social ills. In many cities and villages around the world, [even with] homelessness all around, people still live together and nurture one another because they know one another and support one another. In the United States, we have this sort of dysfunctional individualism, which is driving urban sprawl. People are afraid to be close to one another and that’s creating a host of other ills, destroying the environment, creating social isolation.”

Right now, Reno’s glass is both half-empty and half-full, depending on a person’s perspective. Raising hope—and a house—Mockler says, really does take a village.

“We think about that a lot in our vision: to build enough really strong, vibrant neighborhoods to demonstrate that there’s a better way to live,” he says. “When oil prices continue to go up, Americans recognize that the way they’ve been living, the way they’ve been building neighborhoods isn’t working, and that there are successful, thriving alternatives that they can embrace.”

But will Reno—can Reno—and Nevada embrace its homeless population by reducing rents, updating rental laws, making use of decent, affordable vacant spaces and creating more shelters for the people who’ve lost theirs? And if we can, would that metaphoric hug be the beginning of a better tomorrow—for all of us?

“One way to help assist the homeless is by improving the facilities that are available to displaced men, women and children,” Reid says. “This was a priority for me last year and will continue to be one this year. I will continue looking at ways to help deliver federal funds to reduce and prevent homelessness.”