Video by Bob Conrad
Pat Cashell—director of the Volunteers of America, which operates the recently opened Nevada Cares Campus—wants to clear up some misconceptions about the massive shelter space.
He said claims that the shelter is a dirty, drug- and alcohol-filled place where people are “warehoused” and workers are uncaring are simply untrue.
He pointed to a recent tour by the Washoe County Public Defender’s office, whose workers, he said, are now happy to send people there to get them out of jail.
“They’re the ones that were like, ‘You should probably call the news and have them come through here and actually see the work you’re doing,’” Cashell said.
Cashell also wants to clear up claims that have been repeated many times recently about the shelter not having space for any additional women, couples or people with pets.
When the Nevada Cares Campus was being readied for opening, people were told it could hold up to 900 people. That’s true and could become a reality come winter or under other extenuating circumstances.
For now, though, there are 604 beds inside the shelter. As of Thursday, 553 of them were occupied and 51 available beds were open to anyone—including women, couples and people with pets.
There were only three dogs and two cats at the shelter as of Thursday, but there are more kennels available should people with pets show up.
The kennels are also not kept in a separate area. Those with pets can keep them right next to their beds. Vaccination for pets is a requirement—but Cashell said the workers at the shelter are happy to help people get that done so they can stay inside. He said it usually only takes a day or so to arrange.
Concerns about where people being swept from camps along the Truckee River can go have been voiced by activists, including those who recently occupied Reno’s City Plaza.
Cashell said since homeless encampment sweeps have been recently conducted along the river corridor and elsewhere in town, the shelter has seen about 150 additional people seeking shelter.
“From the past cleanups, we never really saw a big increase,” Cashell said. “If they did a cleanup of a camp a year ago, two years ago, before COVID, we’d maybe see five people come in from a camp of a hundred. But this is definitely the biggest increase we’ve seen from individuals coming in, which I think has a lot to say about the facility, too.”
He said if the shelter were to fill up as a result of a camp sweep or for other reasons, he’d seek authorization from the cities and county to increase the number of available beds. This might also require additional staffing, as the shelter currently operates at a ratio of 50 guests per staff member. He’d like to see that number be reduced to 30-to-1 if more people start staying.
“We’ll fill up our beds,” Cashell said. “What happens after that, dependent on the direction I get from the [City of Reno] or Washoe County or Sparks, is we have cots available—if we get into an emergency situation. … I haven’t been given that direction yet.”
Cashell admits that there have been problems with the new shelter, which was built quickly over a matter of months. One of those problems has been the restroom facilities, where toilets have backed up. But that is being addressed; a plumbing contractor was on hand Thursday morning to begin working on them.
“They were residential toilets—which, besides the plumbing issue, it’s a safety issue for me. You have toilets with lids on them, really heavy lids. I don’t want to see those flung around,” he said.
Cashell said he wanted to stress how much better the Cares Campus is than the former shelter space on Record Street—and that work continues to improve it and the services offered there.
Internet was turned on at the Cares Campus on Thursday. Cashell said it will allow the VOA’s case managers to work from there full time rather than rotating in and out between the new shelter and the old Record Street one.
The VOA case managers are intended to help people transition out of the shelter. They can help them with career development or help them find family members across the country who may want them to come home. They can help military veterans access benefits, too.
“I don’t want people living here forever,” Cashell said. “It’s not because I don’t like you, or I don’t want you here,but I think there’s a better way of life out there.”
A few people have already been helped into more permanent living situations already, he said.
Cashell said safety has also been improved since the shelter was relocated. VOA staff have seen fewer violent incidents since moving into the new shelter and credit it, in part, to the additional space for people to spread out.
While there have still been many calls for service to the shelter, Cashell said most have been for medical emergencies. New security fencing added around the shelter as a point of entry is also expected to lower the number of calls for service.
“Safety is huge to me,” Cashell said. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt because these are all human beings here, and they deserve a safe, clean place to lay their heads at night and feel like their stuff is protected, they’re protected.”