Washoe County has officially opened the doors to Our Place to Grow, a shelter for unhoused families with children in Sparks. Units for women will be opening soon as well. The county provided $2 million for the facility, which is run by the homelessness advocacy nonprofit called Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, also known as RISE. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck spoke with the executive director, Benjamin Castro, about what sets Our Place to Grow apart from other shelters.
Lucia Starbuck: The Our Place to Grow campus is still under renovation. Where are you with that process, and when will it be complete?
Benjamin Castro: Currently, we are hosting the families, so that section is done at the Our Place main campus up off of Galletti [Way]. Right now, the County is still renovating the women's homes. So that should be done by the end of August.
Starbuck: Families started moving in earlier this month. How many people are living there now?
Castro: Right now, I believe we have 23 families, I want to say. Those families range from either two parents and five children to single moms. It really kind of depends.
Starbuck: How many beds will be available once the campus is complete?
Castro: Once it is complete, we are looking at being able to host 28 families, 18 seniors and 118 women.
Starbuck: What safety measures are put in place to protect residents and staff from COVID-19?
Castro: Right now, we're kind of limited to the number of people that we can accept, as far as guests. So that's why we've limited the families down to 23. As far as the women go, originally pre-COVID-19, we were looking at 118, but to encourage social distancing, we're only accepting 70.
Each guest, when they enter the property, they have to get their temperature checked. We give them a questionnaire, as far as, 'Are they exhibiting any symptoms? Have they come into contact with anybody who's tested positive?' Then, just an overabundance of sanitizing highly touched surfaces.
Starbuck: What does social distancing look like once on the campus?
Castro: Once they are on campus, our staff are required to wear masks. We highly encourage residents to try and stay 6 feet apart. It gets somewhat difficult because, obviously, people are social creatures. They want to communicate with each other. They want to be in each other's presence because one of the things that a lot of people don't talk about, about living outside, is it gets really lonely.
Starbuck: Folks at Our Place, are they in separate rooms? What does that look like?
Castro: The families do have their own living quarters. They do have their own rooms. As far as the women's homes, the bunk beds are separated 6 feet apart.
Starbuck: Folks, they can stay there all day, they don't have to leave in the morning and then come back at a certain time, right?
Castro: That's correct. I know that previous operations with Reno shelters, specifically at some of the overflow shelters, were that the morning exit time was 5:30 in the morning, 5:30 to 8 a.m., and then a lot of times they weren't able to check back in until seven, eight, nine o'clock at night, which left a lot of people with nowhere to go. For us, we don't really see the need to kick people out. If you understand anything about sleeping outside, it's traumatic. A lot of people need time and space to be able to recover from that. So if somebody needs to just stay in their bunk for two days, as they heal and process the trauma that they've been through, we allow them the space to do that.
Starbuck: What services are being offered at Our Place to Grow?
Castro: Some of the services, besides getting in with the county case manager, we do have our full-time nurse who is arranging for regular checkups for our guests ... and the food that the county is providing. Not just the county, St. Vincent's Dining Hall, we've been working with, and Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission have been great partners as far as providing food goes. There's laundry, the showers, a place to sleep with your animal companions, the caseworkers, the therapist, and the nurse, and transportation as well. The county was nice enough to provide vehicles for us so that we can get people to and from their doctor's appointments, their workforce development appointments, et cetera.
Starbuck: Pets are allowed, too. Why did you guys make that decision?
Castro: With RISE's Living Room program, we were issuing a lot of housing vouchers. A lot of the folks we had worked with were people that decided to stay outside because they weren't going to abandon their animal companions. It's really sad when you hear people talk about, you know, 'Well, why do you have an animal, or why do you have a dog if you can't take care of it?' But I think people forget that people didn't move outside and then decide to get an animal. It was that dog or that animal companion they had when they were still inside. If you lose your home, and your job, and then your car, and then now it's just you and your animal, and you're expected to give up your friend, too? I totally sympathize with, 'Me and my dog are you going to sleep outside then, and we'll figure it out.'
Starbuck: This is the first time RISE is operating a shelter. How do you tackle operating a shelter for the first time?
Castro: I think the key here is we were very intentional with the people that we asked to join our team. We asked people with lived experience in homelessness, and we asked a lot of peer recovery support specialists, so peers, because we don't have all of the answers. So we were intentional about hiring people who had been in the shelter system, and had avoided it for whatever reasons, or had gone through recovery and are certified peer specialists, and we had asked them, 'What did you hate about shelter living, or why did you decide to stay outside instead of go inside?' And bring that perspective, and bring that experience, and help us operate this place to where people like you want to come here. So our team is really what has prepared us to take on this task.