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County staff report progress at local shelters

By Kristen Hackbarth
Published: Last Updated on

Washoe County Commissioners on Tuesday heard an update on operations at its two shelter locations – Nevada Cares Campus and Our Place. Human Services Agency Director Amber Howell and Washoe County Director of Housing and Homeless Services Dana Searcy both said big things are happening at each of the locations. 

Our Place is the shelter located at the former Northern Nevada Mental Health Services campus serving women and children. The shelter, which has been open for two years, is overseen by the Human Services Agency, with day-to-day operations managed by Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE). 

Recent additions to Our Place include a welcome center, dining hall and additional home for families. The Our Place to Shine Boutique also opened. 

Howell said recent policy changes at Our Place have improved outcomes and brought people into the shelter who might not have come in otherwise. Pets are allowed at the site, privacy is increased with lockers, and families and partners can stay together. 

“It’s really starting to impact some other areas that I think are positive too that we didn’t anticipate.”

The length of stay has been extended too, and within 24 hours of arriving each person gets a case worker and a plan to follow. 

“It’s very difficult to come into shelter and within three months completely change your life around,” Howell said. “We give it a little bit more time and infusion on the front end so we can reduce our recidivism.” 

Commissioner Alexis Hill said she understands some recidivism, and likened it to missing one doctor’s appointment. 

“We need to understand that we are human, and we want people to live in shelter. We want to support, especially, our most vulnerable population,” Hill said. “I think understanding that and bringing them back into the fold and helping them with that next step…they can come back and we are going to take them with open arms.” 

Staffing at Our Place is holding steady as well. RISE has more than 60 employees at the site including shelter managers and advocates – a full staff with no vacancies. The county’s HSA also hasn’t had a vacancy in case workers over the past two years as well. 

Over the past year 137 families have been served at Our Place, and 76% of those who’ve left the shelter have done so successfully. Nearly three-quarters of families who’ve left the shelter have also had a job. 

More than 700 women have also been served at the shelter within the past year and nearly half stayed longer than two weeks and received case management. That’s a lot for an emergency shelter, Howell said. 

“This is actually a very high number for an emergency shelter…we know that sometimes [women in this situation have] trust issues, loss of hope, untreated mental health and substance abuse. Almost at 50% –that’s phenomenal from where we were at a few years ago,” she said. 

Another statistic Howell presented was, since Our Place opened, the number of children in foster care has dropped from nearly 1,000 to just under 700. She credited that drop to programs such as Our Place and Crossroads, which have kept families together.

“All of these things are having a dramatic impact on our very costly, traumatic systems,” she said. “This is really catching on for all of these areas… It’s really starting to impact some other areas that I think are positive too that we didn’t anticipate.”

Howell also said one long-term need for the shelter is a home for women who have mental health issues and are in need of continuous case management and shelter. 

She said there are about 20-30 such women at Our Place at any given time. HSA is piloting Our Home for these clients, providing long-term case management and shelter in a group setting. 

“It’s going very well, but we need to come up with a longer-term sustainable plan and where we can access state dollars or something else so that the county isn’t funding these high intensity mental health programs,” Howell explained. 

Cares campus improvements

Last year, consultant Jon DeCarmine told members of the Community Homeless Advisory Board that the Nevada Cares Campus was unsafe, understaffed and overwhelmed. Searcy, on Tuesday, said the county took his comments seriously. 

Jon DeCarmine, a consultant who is also executive director of the GRACE homeless shelter in Florida, presented a report on the Nevada Cares Campus to the Community Homeless Advisory Board. Youtube screen shot.
Jon DeCarmine, a consultant who is also executive director of the GRACE homeless shelter in Florida, presented a report on the Nevada Cares Campus to the Community Homeless Advisory Board. Youtube screen shot.

Of the many recommendations DeCarmine made, Searcy said more than half are operational and the rest are in process. They include improving staffing and case management, creating smaller zones for people, and lengthening the stay for individuals. 

Staffing at the site has improved since the county took over operations, with all but one mental health counselor position filled. Thirty staff have been hired over the last four months, with all of them trained and on the job. 

Searcy said the campus is also addressing safety. A new welcome center was set up with a security officer, an x-ray machine and metal detector. More than 1,700 people walk through the metal detector each day and more than 800 bags are scanned. 

Searcy said the improved security has helped reduce requests for non-medical emergency response, which she said has helped reduce the number of calls sheriff’s deputies must respond to. 

On-site medical services – offered eight hours a day and seven days a week – is also in place, along with a nurse call line through REMSA. 

The goal, she said, is to reduce 911 calls. 

And it’s working, she added. 

Shelter staff have also changed the way they calculate filled beds, with more regular checks. A person must be on site at least three times over 24 hours to retain their bed. Searcy said this is to ensure that people are sleeping there and not just holding a spot. The new counting procedure, she added, will help identify open beds as we near colder months when more people need shelter. 

A real-time open bed count is also coming online to help law enforcement officers and others see if beds are available when working with people living homeless. 

Construction at the site is ongoing, and more than a dozen temporary buildings are in place to house activities including the security intake area, bathrooms, mail center and case management. 

Searcy said a funding request has been put in to the state’s Home Means Nevada initiative to help pay for one or both of the supportive housing facilities on the site. That program launched in April and will distribute $500 million to help reduce the cost of housing, keep people in their homes and develop affordable housing.

The campus has helped to serve nearly 3,400 individuals, and over the past year has seen a decline in the number of people served each month, down from more than 1,250 in September 2021 to just over 900 in July.

Number of unique individuals who stayed at Cares Campus in the last 13 complete months. Source: Washoe County

Searcy said the extra case management staff on site has also helped to secure more permanent housing placements each month. The monthly placements have nearly doubled since March, increasing from about 15 per month to about 30 per month. 

The goal, she said, is 50 permanent housing placements each month. “If we could secure 50 placements per month we’d be movin’ and groovin’.” 

A new dashboard with additional data on Cares Campus activities is online here.

Commissioners Kitty Jung and Hill both applauded Searcy and the county’s staff for helping to improve the Cares Campus and set a statewide example for shelters. Commissioner Jeanne Herman wasn’t sharing the compliments. 

“You’ve made a beautiful presentation of what you do, but it’s only half the story,” Herman said, “There’s something missing here. We’ve got the physical part of it but not the fiscal, and that’s what the people are looking for.” 

Herman said she wanted to see a budget report to show taxpayers what the Cares Campus is costing the community. 

Hill said that what a Cares Campus budget report wouldn’t show, however, is how the shelter is impacting other areas.

“You would be so excited to actually see the money that we are saving the community in what we are doing both in emergency room visits, visits to the jail, and just overall community character and having people not having to live on the river,” Hill said. 

Searcy said she would add fiscal details to future reports.

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