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 increase the 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:
When you think about homelessness in and around Reno, what stands out most?
What positive steps/responses to homelessness you have seen or are you seeing?
What remains to be done?
What does success in addressing homelessness look like for you?
What other changes do we need/can we make to reduce or stop homelessness in/around Reno?
“Chutes” and “ladders” are no game when it comes to housing
By Bill Macauley
Chris Askin is a nonprofit administrator and fund-raiser. For the past 20 years, he has been President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Western Nevada (CFWN), a 501c3 that “connects people who care with causes that matter” (http://www.nevadafund.org). The Community Foundation was instrumental in making The Village at Sage Street a reality, as well as facilitating other housing projects, caregiver support, and projects to deter bullying.
To characterize my interview with Chris Askins, I have to rely on your memory. Do you remember that old game, Chutes and Ladders, where you wove your way through the game board, hoping to hit the ladders (to jump forward) and avoid the chutes (that sent you backward)? Housing and homelessness are not games, to be sure but, like Chutes and Ladders, they can so often turn on luck or a single move. What became very clear very quickly in my discussions with Chris Askin is his focus on creating ladders out of homelessness and effectively addressing the chutes into it.
Two of the ‘chutes’ Chris said were most prominent for Reno are the lack of affordable housing and
limited mental health resources. We spent a good bit of time talking about mental-health supports
which, Chris said, have to address everything from what might be considered mild challenges to the most severe. People who are struggling or losing ground need opportunities to “re-grab that foothold and avoid larger problems . . . To me, success looks like early identification of people when they become homeless. You can’t prevent everything. That would be too idealistic, I think, but to catch people immediately or within a few days and have them into some kind of safety net” would be effective if not ideal. “That would be it for me, to make sure that everybody who becomes homeless has an opportunity to have a bed to sleep in that night when they’re found, and to move towards independence again.”
Chris included a wide array of those who might need help and the difference that a new foothold can make, using residents of The Village at Sage Street as examples. “People who have college degrees, who’ve had good professions, who later in life because their partner got ill or something like that happened, who became completely financially devastated, old folks living on Social Security that they have . . . there is no place in town where they can live. And when they found they could move into this place [The Village at Sage Street] for $400 a month, all of a sudden now they have some money for entertainment again. They might have been able to afford a car again, and so their quality of life goes up, even though they are living in a very small place . . . maybe they meet a couple of friends and two or three of them can rent that apartment, because now they combine their income.”
Chris continued, “We’re (CFWN) in it for the long haul on homelessness, on housing. Housing is a tough nut. Housing is expensive. To do housing, you need big capacity. That’s why we’re able to do The Village on Sage Street.”
“We’re (CFWN) in it for the long haul on homelessness, on housing. Housing is a tough nut. Housing is expensive. To do housing, you need big capacity. That’s why we’re able to do The Village on Sage Street.”
Chris said, more than once, that homelessness in Reno is manageable; we develop resources and have had some successes. With a little more coordination, we could handle this issue in the Truckee Meadows, Chris believes.
From Chris’ perspective, we have come a long way in just a few years where homelessness is concerned, and the efforts on behalf of homeless youth is one of the best examples. Eddy House has expanded its physical space and become not only a place to go for homeless youth but a place to get a safe night’s rest and connect with resources. He also pointed to the Nevada Youth Empowerment Program (NYEP) that teaches life and employment skills among other things. NYEP also has a project underway on East 4th Street to create a small community of container homes that will put young women and seniors together for the benefit of both. It is certainly not lost on Chris that intervening with youth is a priority because of the highly-positive impact of such interventions before the age of 24. He admitted, too, that for a long time no one was able to touch youth homelessness because there are so many legal hurdles and liability risks. Now, we have two vibrant youth resources in place and another on the way.
“What stands out most to me about homelessness in Reno would be that we should be able to manage this, but we need specific resources in order to manage it better. The high rents are a real problem. And everything that everyone’s building is expensive. We need a bunch more housing in the $600-$650 [rent per month] range. Most of the low-income housing you see is privately-owned by the companies that are building, and the rent is still too high and the income requirements too high, so it's too much of a leap. Nobody in town is doing work with home ownership, so that’s a space we could work in.”
The high rents are a real problem. And everything that everyone’s building is expensive. We need a bunch more housing in the $600-$650 [rent per month] range. Most of the low-income housing you see is privately-owned by the companies that are building, and the rent is still too high and the income requirements too high, so it's too much of a leap. Nobody in town is doing work with home ownership, so that’s a space we could work in.”
Chris described a developing project that CFWN is working on, using land-lease opportunities to make home ownership available in Golden Valley.
More than a roll of the dice “Ideally, we would look at a model where you could construct housing, and yes, you’d have to fund raise to build it, but essentially a model that, once it’s built, the rent does pay for the operating expense and you don’t need to raise money anymore.” The Village on Sage Street is an example of this approach, in terms of both how it came about and how it is now operating, according to Chris.
In so many things, the devil is in the details. Chris spent a good bit of time explaining his processes for projects like these. He said that CFWN looks at problems rather than plans. They articulate a problem and identify specific actions. These processes include key stakeholders at/from the start, building in both short-term and long-term measures of success. Then, they implement their specific actions and keep track of the measures they put in place. “And we can adjust the action. If something is very successful; we can increase it. If it’s not successful, we can replace it or alter it. But, at the end of the day, each day, we can point to something that got done.”
“To me,” Chris said, “the real heroes in the community are the groups we just spoke about, including RISE [Chris had described RISE as among the groups stepping up and taking on new challenges], and just solving problems, not waiting for a plan, not even doing it in accordance with what’s listed in the plans. Just being opportunistic and working and making something happen.
“...the real heroes in the community are the groups we just spoke about, including RISE [Chris had described RISE as among the groups stepping up and taking on new challenges], and just solving problems, not waiting for a plan, not even doing it in accordance with what’s listed in the plans. Just being opportunistic and working and making something happen..."
Because then we get into the position of identifying gaps. It’s so much more fun and easier to say, ‘Okay, what are we missing,’ instead of saying ‘We have this huge problem’.”
Our interview concluded with reflections on what is and what needs to be. “When you talk about what the positive steps are, responses that we see and are seeing, there’s a lot. But we always have to be thinking about what nobody is doing. Where is there still a vacuum? Where are solutions needed and nobody working on them. We choose a problem and then we start immediately working on solutions to the problem, and we implement solutions as we go and we learn. And this approach is always informed by those who are helped...Quality of life isn’t just about where we sleep or our home. It’s in all of the other things we can do to enrich our lives.”
"...Quality of life isn’t just about where we sleep or our home. It’s in all of the other things we can do to enrich our lives.”
Chris left me with the strong impression that he was speaking not just about what is done for people experiencing homelessness but, rather, for all of us involved in the doing, as well.