Reno's homeless shelter is under new management, and that makes people nervous
On Thanksgiving Day, a well-liked volunteer group served dinner outside Reno's homeless shelter on Record Street for what many thought was the last time. They got a reprieve, but beginning next week, We Care Volunteers will be dishing out hot meals to hundreds of hungry people four times a week in the back parking lot of the Burner Hotel.
The volunteers say they have no choice but to disappear, thanks to a new policy—a newly enforced one, anyway—that requires them to clear out of the Community Assistance Center parking lot by 6 p.m. Their usual start time is around 7:15, more than an hour after the center closes, which shelter officials say is a safety threat and a breach of their operating contract. Drug use, prostitution and fighting are more rampant after dark, they’ve explained, and the facility’s meager security presence can’t withstand nighttime crowds.
This isn’t going over well.
In order to wrap by 6 p.m., “we’d basically have to take the entire afternoon off, and we all have daytime jobs, so it doesn’t work,” said volunteer Kelley Shewmaker. “We work to earn the money to buy the food to feed the homeless.”
He figures the new rule is more about territorialism than good faith. After all, Pat Cashell has been heading the local branch of Volunteers of America—which is basically a faith-based managing body for the CAC’s biggest programs—for just two months. And he’s the one who opted to enforce a 6 p.m. cutoff that had otherwise been forgotten.
“I think it’s [all because of] the new guy on the block,” Shewmaker said of Cashell, the son of former mayor Bob Cashell. “He’s rolled up his sleeves and wants to make some changes. I’ve seen it in business time and time again.”
“They really want us out,” he added. “That’s the feeling I get. If they say they want to close down the food service because of crime, well, it’s been going on in that location for five years. If it wasn’t a concern a year ago, why is it a concern now?”Meet the new boss
Cashell is an affable guy. He comes across as a straight shooter, connects with his homeless clients in a relaxed and authentic way, and wears hoodies and jeans like everyone else. He even cusses like a normal person, which'll put your average journalist at ease. He's fun.
Walk the grounds with him, and you’ll meet his public—the woman who runs up to give him a side hug, the teenage kid who jokingly gives him hell and then delivers a sincere thank-you, and the quieter types who pull him aside to say the same. There are many.
The man hates to sit at his desk. Milling and talking with everyone is the best part of the job, he’ll tell you, and he pushes hard to enroll people in the assistance programs they need. Resources at hand include case-managed mental health services; shelters for men, women and families; housing assistance; school-district liaisons and a detox clinic. They’re all on campus.
Apart from the closing-time deal, Cashell has also tightened up the center’s “day area”—a no-frills, fenced yard that many refer to as the Pit. Until recently it was known as Tent City, but the tents are now gone, per his directive.
Cashell doesn’t like to call it the Pit, by the way. He also doesn’t like the fact that the day area has supposedly become so hard and drug-ridden that the shelter’s numerous recovering addicts are afraid to visit. He and a cleaning crew recently spent a day scrubbing it down, removing paraphernalia, human shit and other fun surprises.
“I want to go play catch or something out there with my son,” one shelter resident called out at a crowded impromptu meeting last month, “but I feel like I can’t.”
Cashell vowed to have a talk the next morning with the people who frequent the day area, and swore he’d shutter the space if it doesn’t improve.
This was by no means an ultimatum to the 100-or-so men he addressed the night before, mind you. Those guys were actually waiting around for an AA meeting at the time. Those guys are part of the program.
“There’s a group that’s totally program-resistant who want to cause problems, who just want to sit on their butts all day and not do anything with their lives, and that’s not OK with me,” Cashell said. “But the people who are here trying, they deserve a fair chance.”Nary any nepotism
Cashell’s father led the charge to build the homeless shelter on Record Street. But despite his surname, the younger Cashell is no privileged bureaucrat. He's been homeless at times himself, and was a meth addict for about a decade.
His checkered past is no secret, and two years ago, a Volunteers of America fundraising breakfast was the perfect platform to share his story. His father was facing open-heart surgery, and asked him to speak in his place that morning.
“My dad and I couldn’t stand each other for my whole addiction, so this felt like the greatest thing he’d ever asked me to do,” Cashell recalls.
Lo and behold, Pat “brought the roof down,” says VOA spokeswoman Sandy Isham. “People were crying.”
He agreed to return the next year. Before long, he’d joined the organization’s advisory council.
“If you ever need someone to run your place, I’ll do it,” he once joked with regional president Leo McFarland.
Maybe it was only a half-joke, but at any rate, it registered. The higher-ups figured Cashell could learn the ins and outs of running a nonprofit, Isham said, but they couldn’t teach him to care about the population it serves.
He got the job.
“There have been rumors about nepotism,” he said. “Believe me, if I was going to [go that route], I wouldn’t have said, ’Hey, can you stick me down at Fourth and Record Street?’”
Nepotism isn’t the only rumor floating around. There’s also word that the whole campus could close.
“It’s so not true,” Cashell said. “I would never do that. I mean, where would these people go? These people depend on us here.”
Smaller changes are probably imminent, but they’re still under wraps.
Take this politely vague email message written by city community development official Elaine Wiseman:
“The VOA, in conjunction with the city of Reno, are reviewing the current policies and procedures and hope to make some positive changes in the near future.Unfortunately, we are simply at the planning stage and none of the proposed changes have been approved at the executive level. Therefore, I am not comfortable sharing what those changes are, as it would be merely speculation at this point.”
Right.A moving target
The Reno area's homeless population is tough to quantify. Really tough.
A rather imprecise yearly headcount puts the number at around 4,000 people, Isham said, and Washoe County School District officials estimate around 3,400 students are homeless. The list can include foster children, families living in weekly motels and others who are “doubled up,” which is wonkspeak for crashing with relatives.
Doubled-up kids actually comprise the highest number of students who qualify in WCSD, said Katie Morales, coordinator of the district’s Children in Transition Program. Among other things, CIT does its part to provide clothing, academic fees and transportation for homeless children, some of whom are continually on the move from one attendance zone to another.
“Every time a child switches schools, they lose around four to six months’ worth of learning time,” Morales explained, so the district buses the child back to the original campus.
“It’s a new homelessness that a lot of our families have experienced,” she added, citing as an example the 2011 fire that displaced some Caughlin Ranch residents. “People who you never thought they were going to be homeless lost homes and qualified for our program. … Then there are other reasons that families have been homeless for many years.”
Untreated mental illness is one, and it’s major. No one can accurately account for how many local homeless people are mentally ill, however, and a Renown spokesperson declined to provide the number of psychiatric patients without housing. Maybe it’s impossible to pin down.
Nonetheless, “There’s a homeless population that primarily deals with illness,” said shelter resident Blake Franzen. “It’s why they’re homeless—they suffer from some kind of illness, whether it’s drug addiction, mental illness. … Me, I’ve got a plate with seven screws in this ankle.”
He nodded toward his injury.
“The cold weather’s hell on it,” he said. “I’m doing some rehabilitation right now, and if it doesn’t work, I don’t have any choice but to go where the weather’s warmer, where I can tolerate it.”
Franzen happens to be well-versed in city-planning meetings, and stays abreast of budgetary data as it relates to Reno’s homeless population (and everything else).
“Most people think homeless people don’t want to work, or don’t want to do anything,” Isham said. “But they all desperately want to stand on their own two feet. That’s where true confidence comes from.”
Another shelter client, John Stribling, said he came to town for a wedding and was mugged outside the Cal Neva.
“They even took my teeth.”
Stribling said he quickly made plans to return to his home in Alabama, but he’s grateful for temporary housing in the meantime. The Reno native said he was truly homeless 10 years ago, and remembers seeing some of the same faces that’re still at the shelter today. He knows men who rely on day labor for work, he said, because they’re felons and can’t find much else. Others have gambling problems. Plenty more are just like him—in transition.
“There are a lot of guys here who do try,” Stribling said. “There’s the crew that don’t give a damn and the group that does, and it only takes a day or two to figure out who they are.”No questions asked
Many who stand in line for the late-evening dinners in the CAC parking lot aren't enrolled in the shelter or its myriad assistance programs, so they don't have access to the three meals a day available to residents. The facility puts a 90-day limit on each applicant or family's stay, and it's often a full house with a waiting list and beds for around 300 people. The adjacent Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission also has shelter space, mostly for recovering addicts.
People who are outside when the CAC opens do get doughnuts in the morning, and they’re a very short walk from Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada (also known as the St. Vincent Programs, or St. Vincent’s for short), which serves a six-day-a-week lunch at 11:30 a.m. The Gospel Mission offers meals, too.
Up to 800 people are apt to eat lunch at St. Vincent’s, said Catholic Charities spokeswoman Auburn Harrison, though the number is usually closer to 500. Either way, it’s no small crowd.
“Anyone can come in,” she said. “Absolutely no questions asked. You walk in, you eat.”
Virtually every day in November was also covered by volunteer groups in the CAC parking lot, with We Care chief among them.
St. Vincent’s is next door to the CAC, but Harrison said she’s not familiar with We Care. The volunteers “haven’t approached us that we know of” for the use of outdoor space at St. Vincent’s, she said, or for any other reason.
In any case, “It’s a lot of the same population that we’re all really trying to help.”Honey, I'm home
Amber Dobson is gung-ho and high-pitched and glamorous looking, with bright red hair and kind eyes. People seem to love her. She's the driving force behind We Care, and she devotes most of her free time to preparing industrial-scale entrees and coordinating with church groups and others who hope to help. Recent dinner attendees had a choice of Mexican or Chinese food and homemade cookies.
“Honey,” someone trilled from the food line. “I’m ho-ome.”
“Honey,” Dobson replied in the same singsong tone as she slapped tortillas onto a Styrofoam plate. “It’s good to have you here.”
She’s used social media to keep her supporters aware of the closing-time issue, urging them to write letters that she can present to city staff. The Thanksgiving deadline was actually an extension, as the group was initially asked to leave or keep earlier hours by Nov. 20.
“A woman came to me crying the other night,” Dobson wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “because for her, having access to the day area [meant] she could come and socialize and feel safe until the gates closed at 8:30 … now, at 6 p.m. she is out on the street. … I used to look forward to having a meal and being able to talk to you. Now I feel like I am not welcome here anymore.”
“Yes, we serve a meal to those who cannot provide one for themselves—but it is so much more. We bring normalcy to the lives of people who are typically looked down upon because they are on the streets. We bring friendship, food, and love to those who need it most.”
Cashell sees the volunteers’ plight a little differently.
“None of these people are our clients,” he murmured when Dobson’s hungry fans began to assemble in the parking lot near the former tent city. “And that’s because our clients don’t feel comfortable out here. They’re not safe.”
Shelter employees haven’t screened or usually even met the people who gather to wait—sometimes hours in advance, and sometimes pretty irritably—so it’s true that they could be anyone. The pair of unarmed guards who’re on the clock at night aren’t exactly formidable. They’re trained to cheerfully engage with folks who fall asleep on the sidewalk, for example, and see if they can’t find them some help. They are by no means equipped to deal with hundreds of newcomers after the gated parking lot is supposed to be closed to the public, Isham and Cashell have said.
Cashell took a neutral tack about whether he’d like to see more of a police presence there.
“Police presence is always better in a situation like this, but I know that they are tight already with what they do,” he said. “The police do a great job with how they support us already.”
Fair or not, the handful of organizations who serve food in the parking lot on alternating days all have agreed to leave by 6 p.m.—all but We Care. An early departure is obviously easier on weekends, however, and Dobson’s group operates Monday through Thursday. But one group, LoKa Cares, is also able to feed hundreds of people in less than 30 minutes. We Care spends well over an hour, which sometimes pushes things past 9 p.m.
“People love Amber’s group because they do something good for the community,” Cashell said. “They’re out there serving meals, and they have been for years, and they work hard at it. They work really hard at it. What they do is a necessity for many people.”
He paused for a second.
“And the ones who can follow the rules are more than welcome to continue serving.”