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Lessons From The First Year: How Our Place In Sparks Aims To Break The Cycle Of Homelessness

A brightly lit room with two rectangle tables pushed together to create a square. There are baby blue-colored rolling chairs around the table and multicolored paper planes on the wall. Two tractors are visible outside the window.
Courtesy of Q&D Construction
Conference room at Our Place, a shelter for women and families experiencing homelessness, in Sparks, Nev., in June 2020.

The Our Place shelter in Sparks began moving in families experiencing homelessness about a year ago. There is space for roughly 140 women and 40 families, and the facility is at, or near, capacity every day. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck checked in with Washoe County Human Services Director Amber Howell to learn what strides the facility and its residents have made and what challenges they’re still facing.

Lucia Starbuck: Who is Our Place catered toward?

Amber Howell: Our Place takes families, women and/or seniors with pets, and families can be whatever the family makeup is, whether it’s a single father and his children, a same-sex couple, a single mom and her children. So, a family is a family, however they determine what that makeup is. As long as there’s children, they’re considered a family.

Starbuck: Why is it important to keep the family units together?

Howell: By preserving the family unit and keeping them together, it avoids experience in the foster care system, which takes on a whole ’nother track for individuals, and family is important to everybody. I think that we have found when you’re separated from your family and your loved ones, it makes it really hard. First of all, that’s very traumatic for people to be separated from their parents or their family. And so having the family heal, and grow, and be strong together, and then exit the campus together. Just because somebody is experiencing a situation where they don’t have a home, they shouldn’t have to be separated during that process.

Starbuck: What kinds of services and resources are provided on campus?

Howell: There’s a pretty robust intake screening process that happens. That really starts identifying their medical needs, mental health needs, substance abuse, trauma history, domestic violence, child welfare involvement, those types of things. And then, every single guest gets a caseworker, and they stay with that individual throughout their stay. They get connected to substance abuse services; there’s a medical clinic on-site, parenting classes, domestic violence services, as well as mental health therapists. And then, of course, individuals can bring their pets, and there’s a day care also on-site.

A room that resembles a classroom with two child-size tables in the forefront with blue plastic chairs around them. In the background are kids’ toys and a colorful circular rug.
Credit Courtesy of Q&D Construction / ©Vancefox.com
Child care facility at Our Place, a shelter for women and families experiencing homelessness, in Sparks, Nev., in June 2020.

Starbuck: Why are having these types of resources, as soon as you get there and on campus, so critical?

Howell: We learned quickly that if you don’t have these services in place, upon entry into one of these campuses, and you don’t address those challenges for them, your recidivism rates go up because they haven’t addressed the reason that brought them into this situation. So, we have found that to meet the individual where they are, if you provide those services, and they can have some success, then those challenges won’t be there when they exit our campus. And so they’re better poised to be successful and live independently.

Starbuck: What successes have you had in the past year?

Howell: First and foremost, our biggest number is that we have not had one guest return that exited successfully. That means that whatever happened during their stay, and where we place them after, you know, life after Our Place, that they’re still being successful and not ending up back in an unsheltered situation.

We extended the stay. So historically, women would have been in the shelter for three months; we extended that to six months. I think that was an important move for us because [it’s] really hard to tackle all of those domains or challenges that people present themselves with when they come into the campus. Three months goes very quickly. Sometimes you can’t even get a psychiatrist appointment in three months. And so those are the types of successes that we’re seeing.

Starbuck: When you say a resident has successfully gone through the program, what does that mean exactly?

Howell: Success is different for everybody. Not every individual that stays at Our Place is going to move on and be in an apartment or a home and live independently. We’ve had a handful of individuals that we have had reunification with their families in other states. We have had individuals that, you know, the setting is too low, and they need a more structured environment like a group home, or a skilled nursing facility, or a medical facility that can really treat their needs. Success measures for us is that their conditions upon exit have improved since their entrance into the system.

Starbuck: Why not have Our Place be the permanent shelter or solution?

Howell: I think that, for the most part, what we’ve learned is that most individuals want to have their own place, and they want to have a home that they can call their own, and for whatever reason, you know, they’re not able to do that. But once they start working on their challenges, we want people to live independently. We don’t want people to have to live in a group-type setting, especially families with kids, you know. You want children to have a certain level of normalcy, where they’re not living on a campus.

But what we are finding is that it’s becoming really challenging with the housing crisis. We are not discharging individuals that have stayed over six months because we want them to be successful. And we’re worried about that, you know. If people don’t have affordable housing, that bottlenecks our system, which means other individuals can’t come in because we don’t have the spots. So, I think we have to work on both: affordable housing and trying to come up with other alternatives for individuals.

Information on housing and shelter resources in Washoe County can be found here and in Reno here. Information on rental assistance in Nevada can be found here.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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