For the last few weeks, Jeffrey Stephens has been cleaning up the Truckee River and parks around Reno. He’s participating in a new program called Reno Works that helps get homeless people jobs. The program is a partnership between Volunteers of America and the City of Reno.
“A chance. A chance to make a new life for my family,” Stephens says about his participation in the program. “I feel like I’m getting to live a whole different life outside of the place that I came from.”
Ultimately the mission of the program is to help people like Stephens gain professional skills and eventually support themselves. To learn more, we turn to Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray.
Jeffrey Stephens and his pregnant girlfriend are both staying at homeless shelters in downtown Reno run by the non-profit Volunteers of America.
“My girl, she’s in the family shelter and I’m in the men’s shelter,” Stephens says. “I can’t be in the family shelter until the baby’s born.”
As Stephens prepares for the needs of his growing family, he’s picking up new job skills from a series of training sessions for the work program. For each workshop, Stephens joins eight other participants to learn about interviewing and resume writing. But it’s not all talk, they’re getting hands-on experience by working part-time to clean up urban blight, making $10 an hour.
“I love the work. We clean the river, we clean the parks, we clean-up the trash of Reno,” participant Melanie Young says. “We make it beautiful again. People are appreciative and we feel good about the work we’re doing so it’s awesome--it’s awesome.”
Young and her three-year-old daughter, Illiana, have been staying at the family shelter for almost three months. For Young, Reno Works has given her not only a job, but also a stronger sense of community.
“I want to do something with the public,” Young says. “I want to serve the public somehow, in any capacity. Something where I can give back.”
Young is one of up to 300 people sleeping at one of the Volunteers of America shelters on any given night. The agency also provides other support in the form of food, clothing, transportation, and counseling for those who need it. Spokeswoman Sandy Isham says there are a myriad of reasons people find themselves in desperate situations.
“A lot of people don’t realize with homelessness, it’s not always a jobs issue, sometimes it might be serious mental illness,” Isham says.
Regardless of the problems people are having, Isham says those staying at one of the agency’s shelters are held accountable and expected to be proactive in turning their lives around. In order to remain at the shelter, people are required to meet with a case-worker to try and figure out long-term solutions.
“There’s a long, long list of things that might need to be addressed in their case plan," Isham says. "That’s what the case worker does is they connect the client with whatever services they need in order to help them succeed.”
Reno Works has similarly high expectations. That’s what Pat Cashell says. He oversees Reno Works and the shelters. Already one person has dropped out for not meeting the program’s requirements. From the beginning, Cashell told the group that they’ll be rewarded if they don’t give up.
“If you have perfect attendance and do really well on this and obtain a job, we’ll give you housing vouchers for two years of housing and utilities assistance,” Cashell says to participants. “At that point, all 10 of them put their heads down on the desks and just started crying.”
Cashell says he’d like to see the program continue beyond the two nine-week sessions already planned for. So far, the City of Reno has kicked in $110,000 and Atlantis Casino CEO John Farahi donated $25,000 more.
For Pat Cashell, this is also a personal mission. He knows what it’s like to be homeless. Even though he’s the son of former Mayor Bob Cashell, he was a meth addict for a decade and lived on the streets. He says committing to change wasn’t easy.
“It takes courage, tenacity, determination. It takes surrounding yourself with people that are healthy and clean,” Cashell says. “I had to get rid of all the people that didn’t want that in their lives. It takes love. It takes getting rid of guilt and shame about where you’ve been. Your past doesn’t serve you any good, you’ve got to let go of it.”
Ultimately, Cashell’s goal is to get jobs for as many people from the shelters as he can so they can eventually gain independence, afford to live on their own and get a new start.