Will work for … any pay

When Reno jobs wither, Tent Cities crop up

Due to the difficult job market, 120-130 people have been forced to take up residence in tents within sight of Reno’s luxury hotel towers.

Due to the difficult job market, 120-130 people have been forced to take up residence in tents within sight of Reno’s luxury hotel towers.

Photo By Nick Higman

I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay, Lord, Lord, An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.
—Woody Guthrie

After looking for work for months, Buzz Gariepy, a 52-year-old former warehouse worker, landed a temporary job. To get to his first day, the flat-broke Gariepy collected and sold aluminum cans for bus fare. When he arrived at work, the supervisor said the company had “overhired.” Gariepy was sent home.

Ronald Coleman, 61, spends five hours a day at Nevada JobConnect in the Reno Town Mall. He lost his job as a maintenance manager and hasn’t yet found a new one. He has some savings. He also has a mortgage on his northwest Reno home. And a car payment. And bills.

Brigette Kading, 40, wants to get back to office work now that her son is 10 years old. She hopes to make enough money to help her family move out of a relative’s home. She’s been searching since April, but no luck so far. “It’s really competitive right now,” Kading says.

Greatly depressing
Out-of-work Northern Nevadans might not chuckle at the conservative columnist who snarkily referred to the present economic situation as less Grapes of Wrath and more “Raisins of Mild Inconvenience.”

Home foreclosures hit a new all-time high in May—with Nevada named as one of the most impacted states. Though the recent $57 billion economic stimulus package led to increased sales in May, the impact is likely fleeting, economists fear, given plummeting home values, record gas prices and rising costs of everything.

While education, health and retail sales in Nevada added 8,700 jobs between April 2007 and April 2008, Nevada’s construction, industrial, professional and businesses lost 23,900 jobs in the same period, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

Nevada’s downturn is “different and more severe” than those in the past, says Bill Anderson, NDETR’s chief economist.

“There’s no doubt that the economy right now is struggling,” Anderson says. “It’s just something we here in Nevada aren’t used to. There’s a myth that Nevada’s economy isn’t subject to the ups and downs of the national economy.”

Economist Bill Anderson says the myth that Nevada’s economy isn’t subject to the ups and downs of the national economy is quickly being dispelled.

Photo By Nick Higman

That myth is quickly being dispelled.

While U.S. unemployment jumped this month to 5.5 percent, the steepest spike in 20 years, Nevada’s jobless rate lurks higher, at 5.7 percent—and even higher, 6 percent, in Reno.

Some 78,400 Nevadans were out of work in April.

New unemployment claims between January and March went up 40 percent from a year ago, Anderson says. In those months, 11,000 Nevada workers ran out of benefits, an increase of two-thirds from last year.

Another 36,700 jobless Nevadans could run out of unemployment benefits this year.

At this writing, Congress has approved the Emergency Extended Unemployment Compensation Act—price tag: $15 billion—that would allow states to offer 13 extra weeks beyond the usual 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Even Nevada Republicans Jon Porter and Dean Heller supported the bill. The law is threatened by President Bush’s pledge to veto—but even if it is enacted, is it enough?

During the Great Depression, around 15 million, or one in four job-seeking Americans were unemployed. Around 8.5 million Americans are now unemployed.

A former construction worker, Jake, homeless and living in Reno’s Tent City, offers a stark prediction: “I see a lot of people being in this predicament in a few years. The lower middle class, the people making $30,000 or $40,000 a year, they’ll be right where we are.”


Got jobs?
The days of lining up for unemployment checks are over. No unemployment offices exist in Nevada—and those filing for unemployment must do so online or via telephone. But at either of Nevada JobConnect’s centers in Reno and Sparks, job seekers can use computers to look for jobs online and to improve their skills. The centers offer telephones and fax machines for job searches.

Assistants at the JobConnect office in Reno Town Mall helped Ronald Coleman retool his resume.

“These folks here are just the best,” Coleman says. “People don’t realize that this is the unemployment office.”

On a weekday afternoon, busy job seekers fill more than a dozen computer stations. They take typing tests, check email and search through job databases.

Coleman, with trimmed hair, wire-frame glasses, khaki shorts and brown loafers, has worked as a logger, accountant, shipping/receiving manager and casino controller. Recently, he did maintenance management at several condominium complexes.

Now Coleman seeks a new job or new career. This will require computer skills.

“I’m expanding my options,” Coleman says. “I saw an inventory control job and thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ But you need to know the program they use.”

Until recently, Coleman didn’t know mouse from modem.

“Last year, I was so ignorant,” he says. But now he’s confident. “How hard can it be?”

Coleman goes to the JobConnect center daily.

“I stay here ’til my eyes are crossed,” he says. He takes free computer classes and attends vocational rehabilitation for veterans.

Coleman recently received his first unemployment payment (no more checks but deposits accessed by a debit card). He’s sure he’ll find a job soon.

“I had two interviews somewhat in my field,” Coleman says. “It’s a slow, tedious process.”

Across the room, Brigette Kading takes a skills test.

Anna, a Tent City resident who once assisted at a California women’s shelter, says not everybody in Tent City does drugs or is a bad person.

Photo By Deidre Pike

To get the job she hopes for, Kading, like Coleman, needs to update her computer skills.

Kading’s family moved here from California recently, and they live with a relative. Kading was hired by the city of Reno as a part-time building monitor. But one month, she only worked for 15 hours. Though her husband has a job, the family can’t yet afford rent.

“I’ve been applying since April,” she says. “And haven’t found anything. It’s really competitive. You need to be on top of the current things you’ll be using and needing.”

Hitting bottom
The struggle to pay rent or mortgage, car, gas, insurance, gas, utilities, gas and groceries (and gas) pains us all. But toss health problems or joblessness into the mix, and individuals can find themselves plunging deeper into debt and losing cars and homes.

This means Renoites living in motels, sleeping in cars, queuing up for free meals at the Salvation Army and maybe even lining up for a bed at the men’s homeless shelter on Record Street. A man can stay there for about a month. Then it’s time to go. Where? Well, until the city closes it down—as expected in a couple of weeks—about 130 people are making a home at “Tent City,” a makeshift living arrangement outside the jam-packed men’s shelter and the not-yet-open women’s shelter.

When this happens, landing a job gets even trickier.

At Tent City, rows of makeshift shelters—some constructed from nothing more than a blanket draped over rebar—line a vacant lot against the wall of the train trench on Record Street. People gather in groups to chat or help new residents set up tents. The place smells like dust and exhaust from nearby industrial sites.

Those living here range from youthful bohemians to former construction workers to retirees.

Many residents of this distressed community say they want to work.

Buzz Gariepy submits dozens of job applications.

Gariepy’s graying hair is tucked under a baseball cap. Impediments to his job search? The usual suspects: “Having no residence, no phone—and I can’t afford a cell phone—no transportation. I have nothing.”

If he could land even a low-wage job, he’d feel able to live well. With no car, mortgage, cable TV or gas bills, he could live comfortably in a weekly motel.

“I’d prefer to work than to sit here.”

Anna, a now-homeless woman who once assisted at a California women’s shelter, sees an additional obstacle: Watching one’s own personal possessions—liable to be stolen if left unattended in Tent City—while looking for work.

“Who’s going to hire a woman who comes to an interview dragging a suitcase?” Anna says.

Even harder: transcending the stigma attached to the homeless.

Aimee, who lives near her mother in Reno’s Tent City, says the economy is only part of what brought her to this juncture.

Photo By Deidre Pike

“Most of the guys here are trying to get a job,” Anna says. “Not everybody is a drunk, or does drugs, or is a bad person.”

In the early afternoon, Gariepy and Anna chat in a screened tent with Jake, a former construction worker who, like Anna, doesn’t want his last name used.

He’s furious over the city’s 30-day deadline for the homeless to move out of Tent City. He says he’s leaving town with a carnival.

“I’m getting the fuck out of here,” he says. “Last year, I made $63,000. And look at me now.”

Jake’s shirtless with torn denim jeans. He recently shaved what he described as a long bushy beard in order to apply for a job. He smokes cigarettes given to him by friends. He wavers between anger and despair.

“I’m working at being unemployed,” he says one minute, echoing comedian Slappy White’s comment that “the trouble with unemployment is that the minute you wake up in the morning you’re on the job.”

Later, Jake pledges to take any honest gig he can find.

While some Tent City-ites are professionally homeless, Jake estimates that most want work. He doesn’t panhandle and won’t queue up on Galletti Way with the casual labor crowd.

“The guys who hire those people ought to be down here picking up people,” he says. “I’d jump on a truck in a heartbeat if a guy showed up here to hire us. I’d take $5 an hour. It’s an honest job, not criminal activity.”

For now, Jake collects aluminum cans and plastic bottles, earning about $20 a day.

“It’s an honest job,” he says, holding up his own plastic water bottle. “And these things are everywhere.”

Tent City stories get worse. Add a criminal record to the homeless stigma, and chances of getting a job go from slim to none.

Aimee Louvier, a 28-year-old living in a tiny dome tent, also says she fills out dozens of job applications each week. She can’t get her 2-year-old back until she has a job and home. But employers don’t call Louvier.

“You can fill out job applications all day,” she says, “but no one gives you a job.”

Louvier thinks it’s because of her story and her police record. She’s probably right. The arrests of Louvier, her mom and stepdad were described in lurid detail on the Reno Gazette-Journal crime blog by reporter Jaclyn O’Malley. The three lived in a weekly hotel room where methamphetamine paraphernalia was found. Police reported that Louvier’s 14-month-old son had oozing sores and wore a diaper that leaked feces.

Louvier was jailed for child endangerment. She’s been homeless since her release, she says. She doesn’t want pity, just a chance to work and earn her son back.

Brigette Kading, 40, wants to get back to office work now that her son is 10 years old. She’s been searching since April.

Photo By Deidre Pike

“It’s really hard,” she says. “Everyone says they’re not going to hold your crime against you, but it seems like everyone knows what I did.”

Now Louvier says she’s clean. She sees her son twice weekly and sports a sunburn from spending a recent day with him at the park. She wears a sundress, bracelets and tennis shoes. Straight brown hair falls to her shoulders. The interior of her tent is tidy with folded blankets, clothes and personal items tucked along its perimeter.

“I go to temp agencies almost daily,” Louvier says. “People assume I’m on drugs even when I test clean.”

No help from family?

Louvier points out that she’s already sort of living with her mom, who was arrested with her.

“She lives right here,” Louvier says, nodding to a tent next door, “with her husband of 12 years. He’s a certified forklift operator.”

Some people, Louvier says, seem comfy in Tent City. She’s not.

“I had a job. I worked and paid my rent. I got into trouble. It spiraled down from there. … I’m pushing 30. If they gave me a job, I’d do it. If they gave me a job cleaning Dumpsters with a toothbrush, I’d do it.”


On busts and booms
Pamela Tsuji, branch manager of Staffmark, says she’s never seen a job crisis of this magnitude in the years she’s worked at the staffing agency.

“I go out in the field and hear several times a day from employers that ‘We just laid off 10 people’ or ‘20 people’ or ‘50 people.’ It’s very difficult to get [employers] in the door who have positions.”

Staffmark is one of several staffing agencies in Reno experiencing a boom in available workers and a bust in employers. When unemployment was low, Tsuji had plenty of jobs and too few workers.

“Now that our economy is down, the amount of foot traffic that comes through our door is unbelievable,” she says. “I meet people every day who say they’ll take anything to make ends meet.”

Some of these workers have lost jobs making $18 to $20 an hour.

Staffmark jobs pay $8.50 to $12.

“But people say, ‘It’s OK, we’ll take it.'”

To apply at Staffmark, individuals must first provide a valid telephone number, proof of reliable transportation and a checkable reference. Then come behavioral interviewing, skills assessment and safety training.

Pamela Tsuji, branch manager of Staffmark, says she’s never seen a job crisis of this magnitude.

Photo By Nick Higman

Staffmark accepts about half of its applicants.

Being a Staffmark employee isn’t a guarantee of a job.

“I have employees that call on a daily basis, ‘Do you have anything for me?'” Tsuji says. “Some get downright frustrated and angry because I don’t have anything. I do what I can, and you know, when that time comes and I can put them to work, they’re very happy.”

In her spare time, Tsuji pursues a business degree at the University of Phoenix. She fears unemployment rates will worsen.

“I don’t think things are going to get better,” she says. “They’re going to get worse because of gas prices. I truly don’t see a change for the better.”

Short-term downturn?
Economist Anderson remains hopeful about Nevada’s long-term prospects.

“This downturn is different and more severe than what we’ve experienced in the past,” he says, “but it’s best viewed as a short-term downturn.”

Anderson predicts that the state’s growth rate will continue to exceed the national growth rate. He points to $40 billion in approved construction plans, mostly for mega-resorts in Southern Nevada.

“Most other states can’t look at something down the road and say that this is the catalyst for getting us out of this slump,” he says.

In rural Nevada, mining is doing “quite well” and should remain strong, he says. The same goes for gaming in Reno.

“In the south, gaming is impacted by competition,” he says. “Over the long-term, in Northern Nevada, I would describe gaming as stable. … In the long-term view, if I need a job, I might struggle today. But if I need a career, Nevada’s a heck of a lot better than a lot of places.”

Outside of Tent City, a neatly dressed man with a graying ponytail approaches.

“Do you know anything about this?” he asks, looking through cyclone fence at rows of tents. The man won’t give his name for a newspaper story but he says he’s just lost his apartment and moved into the men’s shelter where he can spend 30 days.

“I’m not getting enough hours at work to pay rent,” he says. “I think I’ll get 16, 20 hours this week. I like my job. But that’s not enough hours.”

He works in retail but has worked for casinos and dealt blackjack for a couple of years. He needs a second job or full-time employment. After his time at the men’s shelter is up, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

“There’s no way I’ll save up rent in 30 days if I don’t get another job,” he says.

He might consider buying a tent.