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City, County must work together for warming center and emergency women’s shelter today (opinion)


Submitted by Ilya Arbatman

What a privilege it is to have real, stable shelter when the temperature drops. Scorching heat can be awful and unhoused people do suffer, but there are ways to partially escape it: the shade, the river, the minor protection of a tent. And, here in Reno, once the sun goes down even the most blistering summer day usually turns to a temperate night. All other discomforts and dangers aside, at least you can be safe from the elements while you sleep.

You cannot escape the cold and, if it gets bad enough, it will kill you in your sleep.

We are today in a crisis on several fronts. I will focus on the two that seem most urgent. The first: the cold is already here and there is no plan (you read that right: no plan) for keeping those without adequate shelter from being exposed to freezing temperatures. The second: unhoused women have no place to go.

Why are we in this mess? A failure of leadership. What can be done today? The Community Assistance Center (CAC)– known to most as the Record Street Shelter–and/or any other vacant property need to be opened immediately to meet two urgent needs: we need a 24-hour warming center and we need an emergency women’s shelter. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak is surrounded by City of Reno, City of Sparks and Washoe County officials as he cuts the ribbon on the Nevada Cares Campus May 17, 2021 in Reno, Nev. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

High hopes, strung along

A few weeks before CARES opened, I took a tour of the ‘campus’ led by Neoma Jardon. Councilmember Jardon was so excited. The tent itself was a unique, state-of-the-art facility, and, she told us, it was only the beginning. She gestured toward other parcels on the property and invited us to dream with her about all the possibilities: that building could become the resource center, and over there they could build transitional housing, and wouldn’t this be a wonderful location for a big, fun day-use area?

Please don’t get me wrong. I didn’t then and I don’t now have any issue with the Councilmember’s big dreams, and I certainly understand that “these things take time.” But I do have an issue with insincere commitments and I firmly believe that community crisis comes from a failure of leadership.

In response to community members’ demands to “Stop the Sweeps” and start to build comprehensive, compassionate infrastructure to support our houseless neighbors, the City of Reno made a number of false promises. In a special meeting with advocates in early June (intended, as it is quite clear now, to shut them up and placate the public), City Manager Doug Thornley promised to hold future meetings to make arrangements for Reno’s harsh winter weather. These meetings never took place.

Reno Police officers arrived where advocates were protesting homeless camp sweeps at City Plaza on June 7, 2021. The protesters were demanding a meeting with City of Reno officials. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Jackie Bryant, an assistant city manager, feigned interest in advocates’ pleas to open a safe camp specifically for women. For weeks, she gave RISE (the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality) the impression that the City was ready to commit $1.5 million to this project. RISE composed and revised budgets, scouted locations and prepared to operate a sanctioned encampment for 50 women. You know what happened next: Bryant dropped the project with no explanation.

On Sept. 1, the City of Reno handed the keys to the CARES Campus over to Washoe County, effectively washing their hands of any responsibility, claiming that the City will now focus exclusively “on housing.” Given the City’s poor track record for fulfilling promises, this is surely yet another prevarication.

Councilmember Jardon knew, as she was tantalizing us with whimsical visions of what CARES would become, that in a matter of months she’d be passing the buck. And Bryant knew, as she strung RISE along–“if you can get me a budget tomorrow, we’re going to make this happen”–that she just had to delay until Sept. 1, at which point taking care of Reno’s houseless women would no longer be her responsibility.

Now, I am aware that Jackie Bryant is probably not the one calling the shots, and it is certainly possible, in fact, quite likely, that she was doing her best and that negotiations were sabotaged by leadership: Thornley, the City Council, the Mayor. Regardless, the advocates doing this work, and of course the people impacted by these decisions (everyone in Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County), deserve transparency. We want to know what happened. What was really discussed that led to the City dropping the RISE-operated Safe Camp? What are all the interests and considerations at play here and how are we supposed to participate in addressing these issues if we only get to hear 10% of the conversation?

The reality

As winter approaches, we find ourselves precisely in the position that many advocates feared and foresaw months ago. Brutal, inhuman sweeps never stopped, not even for a day. People are scattered, far from resources, out of touch with case workers and service providers, isolated and living in unsafe circumstances where they are unlikely to get help if they need it. CARES operates at capacity nearly every day–that’s roughly 600 people–and “operates” is a generous way to describe what is little more than an enormous warehouse for hiding away the people who need help the most.

For some perspective, consider the Union Rescue Mission, one of Los Angeles County’s largest facilities serving the unhoused. It offers emergency food and shelter, physical and mental health clinics, legal and vocational support, and on-site computer access. The Union Rescue Mission has a capacity of around 1,000 and is an actual building with walls and floors and stairs and real bathrooms.

The Nevada Cares Campus was said to accommodate up to 900 individuals, but in practice has been operated at a capacity just over 600 people. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

CARES, which serves a county about seven times smaller than L.A., is a tent with about the same capacity as the Union Rescue Mission (from the inception of the project, Thornley insisted that CARES could hold up to 900, as indicated by the tent’s manufacturer, but in practice capacity has been reduced to 600 for now). CARES features wall-to-wall beds, many of which are bunk beds, with zero privacy, bathrooms built into storage containers and elementary school-sized lockers. There are routinely problems with providing sufficient food, water, linens, hygiene products, towels and (more on this, as well, soon) a sense of real safety.

The Safe Camp, which is two rows of tents on a strip of concrete between a chain-link fence and a huge dirt lot, is also at capacity. Recently, a woman at Laundry to the People, a local mutual aid organization, asked for help finding somewhere to stay. She was on the outs with her partner and she was scared to sleep somewhere where he could find her. For a few weeks she had been trying to get into the Safe Camp to no avail. We called local domestic violence crisis and resource center Safe Embrace and they told us their shelter facility was full and there were 14 people on the waiting list. We didn’t know what to do.

Finally, we got a call from Austin Solheim, who oversees the Safe Camp on behalf of Washoe County. Austin told us that OUR Place, the women’s and family shelter, had a spot open on a top bunk. Although this may seem like a positive resolution to this story (and for the moment, of course, it was), it illustrates a larger, ongoing, and increasingly urgent problem. OUR Place was not intended to operate at or beyond capacity on a regular basis.

From CARES’ opening, everyone from advocates to city officials to unsheltered people themselves spoke candidly about how the tent was just not safe for women. It shelters several hundred people–many of whom are likely to be dealing with substance use and mental health issues–living in a 24-hour facility where there is roughly one staff member for every 100 residents (or closer to one staff member for every 200 residents at nighttime). Does this sound like a safe place for anybody?

OUR Place, on the other hand, was envisioned as a shelter where women felt safe and empowered precisely because they were offered more personal care, their own space, and a feeling of community that would enable them to get back on their feet.

But what’s happened? When the City began its ruthless sweeping of the unhoused, aimed quite openly at forcing people out of sight and into the CARES warehouse–I mean, tent–both CARES and OUR Place were cornered by the City and County’s failure of leadership into trapping women in a lose-lose situation. OUR Place was never intended to be a one-size-fits-all emergency holding facility for all of Reno’s houseless women (or as many as could fit in there).

On the contrary, it was opened specifically for women who wanted a safe place where they could work toward housing, who had perhaps been ‘shelter-resistant’ in the past–likely due to traumatic experiences–and needed more trauma-informed services. OUR Place even hired an Outreach Director whose role was to build rapport with women still living outside and, hopefully, gain their trust and get them the help they needed, whether that meant staying at OUR Place or not.

RISE Executive Director Ben Castro speaks with an employee at Our Place, a shelter for women and families that opened in June 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

This model has been flipped on its head so that law enforcement and other local agencies can justify bulldozing people’s shelters and belongings by saying that “no one will be turned away.” As a result, OUR Place is flooded with women who have been given no choice but to go there and who might be in no way ready to enter that kind of environment. What was meant to be a place of healing and recovery is in danger of becoming yet another warehouse for the people we’d rather hide than help. Although I am confident RISE (which operates OUR Place) will never let that happen, it certainly seems like the City and the County are doing their best to ruin one of the only working models in the region.

Finally, we need to address what is probably the most terrifying and important element of the crisis: despite numerous reports of sexual assaults and trafficking at CARES, Volunteers of America (VOA), who staff and operate the tent, have done absolutely nothing to investigate or hear out any of the survivors. Largely due to these very real safety concerns, CARES no longer officially admits women.

What does happen when a woman shows up and asks for a bed? I’ve witnessed this personally. Security sighs and tells her she has to go to OUR Place, without checking if OUR Place has any beds available(!). If she then makes it across town to OUR Place–which she has to do on her own–and they are full (which they often are), she gets a referral slip and a ride back to CARES. OUR Place does their best to have a transportation team on standby. VOA refuses to communicate with OUR Place and prefers to remain in blissful, irresponsible ignorance, tacitly admitting, by turning them away, that CARES is not safe for women, yet doing nothing to address these safety concerns.

The process is confusing and painful to write about, but the picture is clear: the City and County are failing to provide adequate shelter options for unhoused women.

The St. Vincent’s Warming Shelter in November 2019. Image: Ryan McGinnis / This Is Reno

As for the cold weather, mutual aid groups have sent proposals to City and County officials outlining feasible methods to warm residents of the Safe Camp and offering suggestions for larger-scale warming centers. You guessed it: the City and County have provided no substantive response.

There have, however, been some promising exchanges regarding opening the CAC either as a warming center or as an emergency shelter for women and couples. RISE is well-positioned to help take on this work; the budgets and proposals that the City of Reno disrespectfully dismissed are still ready to be mobilized toward supporting our unhoused community.

Washoe County and the City of Reno have an opportunity to step up and redeem their failure of leadership. We cannot leave people out in the freezing cold. We cannot neglect unsheltered women that need our help. I think we’ve all had enough disingenuous promises. It’s nice to dream about Phase II, Phase III, the bright, happy future, but people need help now. Let’s reopen the CAC and find some creative ways to keep people warm.


Ilya Arbatman does community-minded work in Reno, NV with The Holland Project, KWNK, and other grassroots organizations. 

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.


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