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A community of hope

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

Story and Images by Eric Marks

Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada sponsored their 12th annual Project Homeless and Family Connect event Tuesday, Jan. 28 at the Reno Event Center. The event, which has seen a steady increase in attendance each year, provides individuals and families that have low-income or are living homeless with free services ranging from voter registration and pet care to free haircuts and mammograms.

More than 1,000 people were estimated to have attended the event, many of whom struggle with mental health issues. Karen Van Hest, director of reimbursements and compliance for CCNN explains, “We have so much mental health issue in our homeless that it is very difficult for them to get from the streets into a house.”

Karen Van Hest
Karen Van Hest. Image: Eric Marks

Van Hest, who estimates that “over 50 percent” of the homeless population suffers from mental health issues, continued to explain, “we need to take care of our mental health problem.”

But mental health issues are not the only source of struggle for those living homeless in Reno. Unaffordable housing was the main complication for the majority of the people in attendance, with many having to choose between food or housing on occasion. Dalia Iniguez, who came to the event with two of her seven children, came simply because she was short on food after saving up for next month’s rent.

Families are not the only demographic affected with the skyrocketing price of housing in Reno. George Jefferson came to the event to “get some help” with finding housing. At age 65, his $800 monthly Social Security Income check “isn’t even enough to find a place.”

Jefferson, who was evicted from the Ponderosa Hotel after losing his job as a custodian at Fitzgerald’s Casino, has been living on the river. He was enjoying a hot meal for the first time in weeks, as his food stamps were reduced once his SSI was approved and he general can only afford “a box of cereal and a gallon of milk” for food.

I just want a warm, safe place to live. It’s cold outside.”

Many people in attendance were pet owners as well and “will sacrifice their own well-being for that of their pets,” explains volunteer Christi Johnson, a dog escort for the event. “The love their pets; sometimes it’s the only connection that they have,” she observed. “The connect more with their animals than they do other people. And the animals are just as attached to them. Nine times out of ten they are more concerned about the well-being of their animals than they are about themselves.”

As Reno continues to increase in population, community outreach programs are struggling to maintain their ability to provide services. The growing need of residents who are low-income or living homeless are rapidly surpassing the availability of housing and assistance programs.

With no end to the city’s expansion in sight, the majority of those families and individuals in Reno are continuously relying on charity and donation outlets for basic survival. Many of them are articulating the same basic thought best summed up by George Jefferson: “I just want a warm, safe place to live. It’s cold outside.

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