By Tabitha Mueller
The Nevada Independent
A line snaked outside the Reno Events Center on Tuesday morning as volunteers served breakfast, gave haircuts, offered pet checkups and connected people with other same-day services designed to help families and individuals in need.
Organizers estimated that more than 1,000 people came to interact with 85 organizations at the 12th annual Reno Project Homeless and Family Connect event hosted by Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada and The St. Vincent’s Programs.
The event was held two days before Reno’s point-in-time count, a federally mandated census of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals on one night in January. Data from the count is used to determine funding for housing and support programs. Organizers said they opt to hold the event in January in part to encourage people to also participate in the count.
Marie Baxter, the CEO of Catholic Charities, described Project Homeless Connect as a “one-stop-shop” for individuals seeking services. She said placing all the organizations in one location made them more accessible and emphasized the importance of the event, given Reno’s high rent prices and lack of affordable housing.
“There are a lot more people experiencing homelessness in our community now than we’ve ever had. At Catholic Charities, between our warming center and our lunch service that we’re providing, we’re seeing record numbers of people on a daily basis,” she said.
Baxter said she has lived in the Reno area her entire life and views her role at Catholic Charities as a way to give back to the community.
“We all have those rights to dignity and safety and to a hot meal and a place to stay where we feel safe,” she said. “That’s why I get up every day and why my staff does. We want to be able to offer that in some way to everybody so that we all have that opportunity to feel a sense of community and safety.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Carol Anderson said she has lived in Reno for a long time and comes to Project Homeless Connect every year. A self-described animal lover, Anderson said she brought her two emotional support dogs with her to get a checkup at Pets of the Homeless, a nonprofit providing veterinary care and pet food for homeless people.
“I don’t think that people realize the connection that people have between their pets. They are like our family. They’re just like my children, and that’s the way I treat them. And I love them like that,” she said as she rubbed her dogs’ ears.
Anderson said she appreciates the care and attention her two dogs receive.
“It’s always a good experience, and I just love coming here. And the community, I don’t think they realize how much of a help they are to senior people and the homeless. They do a lot for us, and I hope they will continue to do so,” she said.
Leslie Frost said she came to Project Homeless Connect so her Jack Russell Terrier named Bruno could get his vaccinations.
“I’m diabetic, and it’s hard for me to keep a job. So these type of events helped me out with being able to keep an animal with me,” she said. “[Bruno] helps me when my sugar level drops at night. He’ll wake me up, and he’ll help me get my stuff.”
Originally from Georgia, Frost said she moved to Reno to be closer to family.
“Family is important because I guess you can survive without family, but it’s hard. It’s hard to not have anybody. So you try to keep close to your family,” she said.
Krystal Wasson, a cosmetology student who expects to graduate in May, said she loved watching people’s reactions as they looked at their new haircuts. She and other students provided haircuts to attendees for free.
“The gentleman that just left — his hair was super long, down to his shoulders, and he left with a fade … It looks amazing,” she said.
One of Wasson’s instructors, Letoria Ramiro, said one of her passions is giving back to the community, and she hopes to instill that passion in her students. She also said she hopes the haircuts she and her students gave can challenge stereotypes of homelessness and help people feel more confident in themselves.
“A haircut can mean so much for someone just to look beautiful,” Ramiro said. “It means a lot when you wake up in the morning, and you can look at yourself and look beautiful. It just gives [people] that self-esteem and extra boost to make it through the day.
Courtney Pugsley said she originally came to the event for breakfast, but then stayed to get more information about applying for services and a Nevada ID.
She said she had not had a haircut in over a year and was looking forward to a shorter style and something that would help her feel more confident after a medical diagnosis which made it difficult for her to work.
“I decided to get a haircut so I could be happier about my life,” Pugsley said. “I have a chronic back pain condition. I’m not allowed to lift 15 pounds, so it’s hard for me to work. If you’re about to get a job or if you’re going on a date, just life in general, [getting a haircut] makes you feel more confident.”
Pugsley also said since her father moved out of the state and cut off contact, it has been difficult for her to find community.
“It’s been hard on me, mentally and physically, realizing that I no longer have a father,” she said. “So to come to an event like this and see people who kind of know what I’m going through but not really know what I’m going through, but can lift my spirit and give me a hug, [means a lot].”
John Shine, a 68-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, said he came out to the event to see what Reno was doing for the homeless and disabled vets.
“I see that they’re feeding people, a lot of people are getting help here, and there’s a lot of assistance where people can try and do better for themselves,” Shine said. “It takes a while for people to come together and learn how to live together and help [each other] out.”
He said it was heartening to see the community supporting those in need.
“Well, [people here are] coming for assistance,” he said. “Some people just want to get fed. But I mean, there are other people that want to get ahead that are looking for somebody and just need a helping hand. Try to do better, you know?”
Shine said although the event was a great resource, it was not frequent enough.
“We’ll have [the Project Homeless Connect] this month, and then we won’t have nothing until maybe summertime where people are dehydrated, and they give out water,” he said.
Shine also said he was tired of reading about awful occurrences in the news, and wishes more people came out to help each other.
“I’ve got one leg, and I can stand up and donate my time, feed the homeless. I can do something for somebody and that that’s what the world needs better, besides all the trouble. There’s too much negativity going on in the world,” he said. “I’m looking for things to get better before I leave here.”
The Washoe County Library System hosted a booth at the event, issuing library cards to anyone who wanted one and waiving fees that prevent people from checking out books.
Washoe County Librarian Tyna Sloan said waiving fees is an opportunity to help people feel comfortable returning to the library and a chance to dispel the myth that if you have overdue payments, you cannot access computers or online resources.
“There’s a lot of families with small children. If they have a library card, they have fees on it that actually stops them from going to the library altogether,” she said. “You never know what their circumstances are, but it just feels nice [to waive those fees], and people’s faces light up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can go back to the library now that I have no fees.’”
Sloan said one of the most memorable moments of the day came when a grandmother stopped by and picked up some books for her grandchildren.
“[The grandmother asked], ‘Can I take some books for my grandchildren?’ And there’s nothing more fantastic going, ‘Take as many as you need for those little people’… I mean, how wonderful when she goes to see her grandchildren with these beautiful bags with brand new books inside of them,” she said.
Esther Torres stopped by the library booth to get a new library card and said she goes to all the events at the library, checks books out regularly, and uses public computers to access the internet.
She said she especially loves the space the library gives her to relax.
“It’s somewhere quiet to go. It’s nice and peaceful … I really like the library, so I encourage everybody to go to it … You get quiet, and you can just think, you know, get peace of mind,” she said.
Connie Wesley said she brought her three children with her to look into resources, pick out coats and spend some time together.
She watched her kids playing with some frisbees and said they get along and play with everybody they meet.
“I want them to be able to go to college or just have a better life,” she said.
Jackie Brown, the lead case manager for Volunteers of America/ReStart, handed out bags of feminine hygiene products and socks at the event.
“We’re giving away these products because many of our homeless populations are not able to afford them. I mean, they get food stamps but the food stamp is just for what it says: food stamps. These are the essentials that many of them are lacking,” Brown said.
She estimated she gave away 200-300 bags of hygiene products and more than 50 bags of socks.
“I gave one person a pair of socks, and he said, ‘Oh, thank you so very much. I really needed this,’ and you know, it’s just a small thing that we take for granted that seem to be a valuable commodity.” she said.
Brown, who has been working in the field for more than 14 years, said every individual has a story and homelessness should not be stigmatized.
“I think it’s very important that people look at the homeless populations as being humans. They’re not ‘these people.’ They are down on their luck, and many of them are just looking for a hand up to help them,” she said. “Homelessness, it doesn’t have a title. It doesn’t say that I’m going to skip you and go to you. We can all be homeless at any point in our lives, so we should not label these individuals.”
This article was reprinted with permission by The Nevada Independent. Visit them online at thenevadaindependent.com