The meeting of the Community Homeless Advisory Board Monday again raised concerns about the safety of the Nevada Cares Campus.
“Staffing is definitely the number one priority,” said Washoe County’s Dana Searcy.
The county hopes to hire 29 new employees for the shelter and Volunteers of America, the shelter’s operator, hopes to hire 49 new people to address the concern.
Staff turnover has been rampant, according to Leo McFarland, VOA’s CEO. VOA in the past six months has hired 65 new employees, and 63 have left in the same time period.
He said the county, through a funding change, made it possible to increase wages for employees starting Jan. 1, which McFarland said he hoped would stabilize the turnover.
Safe camp has greater success for permanent housing
Mod-pods at the safe camp portion of the campus, which are being installed, should in about two weeks house 52 people who are living in overflow garages at the site.
Clients at the safe camp have a much higher rate of obtaining permanent housing, as opposed to those staying in the giant tent shelter. The safe camp is separate from the large tent that holds about 600 people.
Searcy said 58% of safe camp clients have attained permanent housing, but only 5.6% of clients staying in the main shelter have received housing. Those staying in the shelter end up there for weeks and months.
The average stay at the Cares Campus is 21 days. For those staying beyond 21 days, their average stay is 71 days, McFarland said.
Searcy said some people who leave the shelter are counted again as exits if they get temporary housing – such as staying at a friend’s house – and then return.
The county is far from targets set by a consultant that warned last year the campus was dangerous and understaffed.
“There is not a lot of permanent housing happening right now at [the Cares Campus],” Searcy said. “The case management staff does an amazing job with what they have on site in a situation that includes 600 very high needs individuals … not that they all are, but there is a much greater percentage [of high needs people at] Cares Campus than in any other program.”
Washoe County Commissioner Alexis Hill said progress has been slow.
“Since the county took over the campus in September, we still haven’t started that strong housing focus with each client,” she said. “When you have a lack of staffing there, there are things that, you know, happen in the facility when there isn’t … people being monitored and watched and enough case workers on site…”
“We are serving three times as many people as we ever had on that campus,” she added. “So it’s going to take time to get the staffing on board.”
Assaults, drugs and weapons a problem
A client staying at the campus since August said at Monday’s CHAB meeting that he’s witnessed assaults, drug abuse, and guns and knives at the shelter.
The county’s head of security, Ben West, confirmed crime is an ongoing problem at the campus. He said a rumor mill has made some allegations difficult to pursue, especially if clients won’t follow up with reports to law enforcement.
In general, if staff witness incidents, they report them, West said. The campus averages about four non-medical emergencies per day. Those calls are for those who are suicidal, wellfare checks, “unwanted subjects” and general disturbances. Some of the calls from the campus are for incidents that occur off campus.
“Our policy is to facilitate getting the person in contact with law enforcement…,” West said. “It definitely is challenging for anybody doing an investigation if it’s difficult to get cooperation or witnesses.”
Security is on site at all hours. Those temporarily barred from campus for infractions can be let back in, according to the campus’ policy. Security upgrades are expected in the near future to accomodate more staff and services.
“We are going to upgrade to [a] walk-through metal detector and other technology to do more intensive screening,” West said. “We do everything we can to … provide multiple opportunities for people to report things and we take all of the allegations seriously… it’s definitely challenging.”
County tells VOA not to speak with news media
VOA staff would not comment on the allegations the campus is unsafe. They said they were told by the Washoe County manager’s office not to speak with the news media. All media calls were to be directed to Washoe County’s public information officer, staff said.
Bethany Drysdale, the county’s PIO, said the county does not have such a policy with the VOA, but VOA’s Pat Cashell said he could not comment for this story, even though he has, historically, been available to answer questions from the news media.
“[Assistant County Manager Kate Thomas] told Pat and others to not speak on behalf of county services anymore,” Drysdale said. “Too many cooks in the kitchen….”
Drysdale said, however, Cashell could speak about VOA matters – Cashell declined, citing the directive from Thomas.
Social Security office closures hinder client progress
The VOA’s McFarland said success is hampered in part by the federal social security office only being open two days a week for walk-ins. That’s because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Most of the VOA’s clients need new social security cards for employment and housing opportunities. But with the office’s closure, that means only 20 people per week can apply for replacement cards.
“It’s very important that the population stabilizes in the shelter for any length of time,” McFarland said, “so we can complete all the work necessary to get those basic things that they need [such as social security information and identification].
“To accomplish all that during the era of COVID again extends the time for these guests to complete what they need to do to provide the substantial next step information for a landlord to accept somebody into housing…”
Low-pay, high housing costs
Reno’s cost-prohibitive housing market was cited again as a barrier for successful re-housing of those experiencing homelessness. That’s in conjunction with the lack of housing affordable to those on little to no income.
“Everybody who gets into the system gets placed on potential housing registers in the town and you’ve already heard today that you’re 25,000 units of affordable housing, on the low side [of] what you need in this community,” McFarland said. “So affordable housing is critical. But I will also throw my support in the fact that permanent supportive housing is a critical issue, and if you’re going to do some investment, we need to look at permanent supportive housing.
“The price tag on permanent supportive housing is pretty significant on a year-in, year-out basis,” he added.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.