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"Our House: Urgency and Action" Article1 by Bill Macauley

Our House: Reno Housing and Homelessness Interviews

The Reno community continues to face housing shortages up and down the affordability scale. Of course, those whose resources are most limited are most vulnerable, but no one is off the hook entirely. While some might like to argue that this is an individual problem, we know that these issues are communal and impact the entire community in numerous ways, from homeless encampments to health care demands to real estate prices to regional economic development. Like it or not, the lack of affordable housing and homelessness impact us all in one way or another.

The goal of the Our House interviews is to help community members understand how complex these challenges are and what is being done. Both will help us, as a community, to avoid ineffective oversimplifications and he power of our productive responses. Each interviewee is chosen on the basis of two criteria: first, they are actively involved in responding to housing shortages in the Truckee Meadows and, second, they bring a critical perspective to this discussion. Each interviewee is presented with the same five questions:

1. When you think about homelessness in and around Reno, what stands out most?

2. What positive steps/responses to homelessness you have seen or are you seeing?

3. What remains to be done?

4. What does success in addressing homelessness look like for you?

5. What other changes do we need/can we make to reduce or stop homelessness in/around Reno?

Urgency and Action: An interview with Sharon Chamberlain

Bill Macauley

Sharon Chamberlain is the CEO of Northern Nevada HOPES, a nonprofit community health center that offers integrated medical and wellness services to all, especially the medically underserved. Sharon has experienced homelessness and chemical dependency firsthand, which makes her particularly well-informed as to the needs and concerns of living outdoors with these challenges.

When Sharon and I spoke in late April, what became obvious to me was Sharon’s strong sense of urgency and purpose. Her assessment was straightforward: there are simply too many people experiencing homelessness, and the number is growing. Our discussion focused quite a bit on those “living at the edge” who could just make rent, on those on the verge of homelessness—what would they do when pandemic eviction prohibitions were lifted? If those folks could barely afford their rent, how would they catch up on their back rent? “I think we’re going to see more people moving into the weeklies, and that’s likely going to displace some of the people who are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. We might start seeing families and other folks moving in. The hotels might decide or assume that they’re better tenants.”

Homelessness and a lack of affordable housing can seem insurmountable, and insulating oneself from these issues can be appealing. Many who have been homeless describe themselves as invisible to most other people, which allows others to walk by and offer no help. Some claim that engaging the homeless is not safe. There is no question that among people experiencing homelessness there are mental health challenges and substance abuse issues, sometimes both. “Identifying that all homeless people have behavioral health and substance problems can be another way that people distance themselves from these humans, from our brothers and sisters that are living on the street.”

Sharon went on to say that facilities like The Village on Sage Street and HOPES Springs will play an increasingly essential role as sheltering in place for COVID begins to be relaxed. “I anticipate that, for a lot of the working poor, individuals that work full-time, maybe 2-3 jobs even and still can’t afford the rents around our community, will end up seeking safe haven at [places like] Sage Street.” Even the best of these resources present challenges, though, because they can only accept individuals.

“What happens to those who have families or pets,” I asked. Sharon said this is particularly worrisome for kids.

“In worst case scenarios, when we talk to our youth that are experiencing homelessness, we find that a lot of those individuals, those kids, are kicked out at this point. They’re 14, 15, 16 and the family is making a choice about what they can afford or where they can stay and what that looks like . . . There’s an economic piece for a lot of kids that end up out there. It’s a matter of numbers. Maybe they have a lot of younger siblings, and the parents just say, ‘I just can’t take care of you anymore; you need to go take care of yourself.’ Often times, those children are the ones that end up on our streets. It’s horrifying, you know? Sad. It’s sad we don’t have the things in place in our community to help families in their entirety.”

But there is good news, too. Sharon pointed to the ongoing renovations at the NNAMHS campus. The NNAMHS campus is a former state mental health services campus that has been minimally used for more than a decade now. It is being repurposed for local community programs, residential programming, and housing. Of particular note for Sharon is the new women and children’s and family shelters set to open soon at NNAMHS. Sharon called attention to other projects, as well. “What the city has done with our HOPES Springs tiny home project has been remarkable, and it’s pretty cutting edge. That will help 60-100 individuals every year.” Although not focused on the homeless specifically, Sharon also noted that Sage Street is making a difference for veterans and will continue to do so.

Changing minds about these issues is essential, according to Sharon. “I feel like the conversation around homelessness is shifting, and there’s an acknowledgment that we need to address and work to solve this issue. Through that, a lot more dialogue and education is happening among a variety of groups including everything from the developers to local businesses . . . who have come to care and come to understand in a much broader sense what experiencing homelessness means and what that looks like and why it’s not just a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ kinda thing . . . that it’s extremely complex once you’re on the street to find a way out. There’s some newfound acknowledgement of that even among our elected officials.”

These changes are good and they help, but Sharon also suspects that homelessness will persist and likely increase. I asked Sharon how she stays positive facing such challenges. “Any positive change is something to be celebrated. I’ll tell you what really keeps me grounded. It’s the individuals who walk in and out of the doors every single day at our clinic. When you’re literally interacting with individuals that are living this experience, you can’t stay hard. You can’t stay jaded. You can’t give up because you see the realness, and you see these people holding on to hope and, you know, experiencing joy in their lives even when they’re struggling with everything that’s been put on their plate. That’s inspirational.”

Sharon offered that we need to respond to Reno’s housing and homelessness issues with a sense of “urgency,” like we did with COVID-19. That kind of response would open up health care, housing, behavioral health resources, support for those who are in jeopardy of losing their homes before they become homeless. The prevailing view of ‘us and them’ is diminishing, but it still allows us to not see many of our community members as humans. “Someone living like this in our own community is just 100% unacceptable. We should be able to reach zero homelessness. We are a small community. We have a small number of individuals compared with places like L.A.. And if we could apply that sense of urgency, we could have this done in six months.” In that six months, we would need greater insurance coverage for mental health, behavioral health. We would need to create more affordable housing options. Individuals would need to be able to meet their own goals, which would look very different for the very different people who live here. The community can’t determine success for all but, rather, ask “if those impacted by homelessness or on the verge of being impacted by it are healthy, happy, fulfilled, contributing--whatever that looks like--and feeling a part of and connected to our community.” We have done parts of this already. At state, and federal levels, for example, we have seen such an increase in telehealth because of COVID-19, because we chose to overcome the barriers that had stopped it before. We have to make sure these resources are billable in order for that to be sustainable.

“We have been chipping at the same stone for a long time . . . When you see how quickly something can shift because we can do it. We need to stop saying we can’t, and we need to start saying we’re going to and we will and we have. We just need to change the ways that we operate at the state and federal levels. We need to pay a livable wage. We need to provide healthcare for everyone, and that includes behavioral health not just medical services. And we need to build housing that’s affordable and accessible with minimal barriers and restrictions into that housing . . . and probably a million other things.”

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