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How did Washoe County’s Safe Camp program pivot for winter?

Washoe County is trying to figure out how to keep people not only sheltered this winter but out of the cold. Its Safe Camp program launched six months ago to give unhoused people an alternative to the county’s mega-shelter, but the outdoor tents are no match for Northern Nevada winter.

This summer, Washoe County’s Safe Camp pilot program provided about 50 green camping tents outdoors, right next to the Nevada Cares Campus. People staying there work with case managers to help with things like applying for jobs or getting an ID. They also have access to bathrooms and showers. In return, they must agree to seek housing.

With winter arriving, the tents have been temporarily moved into a garage. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck spoke with Washoe County Assistant Manager Kate Thomas and asked her about the efforts to winterize the camp.

Kate Thomas: Through our efforts and a very tough and harsh Nevada summer with some smoke and the sun beating down on these tents, we learned that the tents aren’t really standing up to the elements here in Northern Nevada. And so, luckily for us, there was a product that came online out of Portland called the ModPod. It’s a little individual shelter. It’s an eight-by-eight structure with a heating and cooling unit in it, and a door, and a window, and a cot. So that offers us a longer-term solution for still individual shelters.

People still have an individual space, but in the meantime, because supply chain issues have those delayed a little bit for us, which we were hoping to have the week after Thanksgiving. We were able to secure a lease with the Reno Housing Authority for a property right adjacent to the Cares Campus, we have a large structure there, where we were able to move the tents into, sort of, these little bays; it’s almost like a garage space. So people still have individual shelter, but they’re out of the elements.

Lucia Starbuck: Are you going to kind of do away with the tents? 

Thomas: That’s the idea. The tents really are not holding up for the weather, and the heat, and everything else, so the ModPods is really going to be our solution to that.

Starbuck: How challenging is it to run an outdoor program like this with the weather in our region?

Thomas: Well, the interesting thing is these are individuals who have been out in the weather for, some of them, decades. And so they’re no stranger to being able to pivot themselves, and you know, stay to themselves, and be warm. We’ve removed some of the barriers that make it difficult for them on a day-to-day basis out in the elements. They are safe in an enclosed area that is fenced, so they don’t have to worry about people coming in and stealing their things. That barrier has been removed. We’ve got a space for pets, so if somebody wants to go to a job during the day, their pet is safe and taken care of. So they’re able to focus on themselves, and rehabilitating themselves, and getting themselves into a better space to approach housing.

With the smoke and everything, we offered space in that large emergency shelter. We set it aside, sort of its own area. People didn’t want to go. They just want to be in their own space. Weather, smoke, you name it, they still just want that autonomy. So we’ve learned that important lesson.

Starbuck: How many people have transitioned into a more permanent housing arrangement? And what does that look like for folks?

Thomas: We’ve had more than a dozen. About 60% of those that have transitioned have gone into a housing situation that we call stable or permanent. Some of that is supportive housing, where they’re continuing to seek and receive case management. Others are, they just needed some shelter and some resources to get on their feet, and they’re able to do it on their own in an apartment.

Starbuck: How many people haven’t exited successfully and why is that occurring?

Thomas: Some folks just aren’t ready to transition, and it’s a tough move when you’ve been living independently, sort of fighting it out on the streets or in a camp. It’s tough for people and it’s similar to sort of a rehabilitation process. It doesn’t always work the first time.

Starbuck: How challenging is it to help folks transition into housing in our region?

Thomas: It is extremely difficult. We have a lot of talent around getting folks ready for housing, from financial literacy to working with them to get their identification, food support, all of it. What’s missing currently is the housing piece. We have, right now, dozens of people, both in the Safe Camp and the emergency shelter, that are holding housing vouchers, that are ready to transition with no housing in this region to be had.

Starbuck: Where do we go from here?

Thomas: Well, we need to incentivize the development of affordable housing. Right now, if you’re a developer, it doesn’t make sense for you to build something affordable when you can get market rate. So as an organization, and as a region, we’ve set up a couple of tools. We need to expand on those to incentivize the developers to come forward with some affordable solutions.

Washoe County has set up the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would be an opportunity for a developer to come and say, you know, “Hey, could we have some money towards the land purchase or whatever if we make that project affordable?” And so if we can provide those incentives as a region, and come up with some strategies, we can certainly help to increase the affordable housing stock in this region, which we so desperately need.

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

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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