Michelle and Bob Mello, a Navy veteran, are the brave, big hearted, always generous couple behind the Reno Sparks Homeless Veterans community Facebook page.
Most of their work doesn’t happen online though but face to face, in person, helping homeless veterans they come across whichever way they can, in ways both small but significant, like a loaf of fresh bread or a friendly smile, and extremely big, such as paying for their motel room to get them off the streets, and finding them housing they can afford.
“We’re real,” Michelle says. “We don’t fake anything. We live paycheck to paycheck ourselves. We tell you how it is. This is what we want to help you with. If you don’t want this, it’s fine. We never, ever command anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.”
In a corner of their Sparks home, the Mellos keep care packages ready to be delivered to homeless veterans, our “homeless heroes” they call them, full of clothes, a sleeping bag, soap, socks, toothpaste, and if they are on the streets, a stars and stripes handmade pillow.
As they are becoming better known for their extreme generosity, they sometimes get calls in the middle of the night.
“They’ll tell you they are homeless because they lost their job, or they had an addiction. They got out of the service and they thought they could have resources to jump back into society. Unfortunately, it could be anything from mental illness to physical problems because of the damage which happened in the service,” Michelle explains. She herself was almost homeless with her children and lived in a shelter for abused women for a while until her father, a retired Navy veteran, came to the rescue.
The Mellos hold yearly coat and blanket drives, bring leftover food from catering jobs they have, and also help on an individual basis. “If everyone did what we do,” Bob says, “there would be fewer homeless.”
One veteran the Mellos are currently helping, Steve, 67, had been living on the streets for two years.
“We found him on Wells Ave.,” Michelle remembers. “He was in a wheelchair. He was in pajamas. He just came from the Veteran’s Hospital. Somebody brought him there, and they checked him out, and they let him go. He had a really damaged hip so he couldn’t walk so he got a wheelchair. We went and picked him up. We brought him to the shelter in our car and we got him cleaned up. We gave him new clothes and one of our care packages. The next day I went to go check on him and he was gone. I guess he wandered off because he had a memory issue.”
From Wandering Off to His Own Place
“So we found Steve and brought him back to the shelter," Michelle explains. "He tried to stay at the shelter but he kept wandering off. The protocol at the shelter is they can’t go after them. You walk off, you walk off. So we put him in a hotel. He was there for a couple of months. We finally got him housing. He’s over on Arlington Ave. and he has a nice little apartment. He’s sober. Bob and I still go over there every other day to make sure he has food, his medication. We take him to his veteran’s appointments because he doesn’t have any family.”
A Veteran Helping Veterans
“I like to see my fellow men out there not to be sitting on the streets or along the river,” Bob says. “Get them started, get them going. Get them back in reality, but knowing their mental health coming back from wars is sometimes never completed of repair. So they need an extra boost and this is what we try to do. I don’t like to see them out there freezing. They need to be fed and so we do the best we can to make sure that they have what they need to continue their life.”
An Emotional Connection
“They gave up everything to fight for our country. Now it’s time for us to fight for them,” Bob adds, getting teary eyed. “And they need it. They need it bad. And it hurts. It hurts. Some of them have lost legs, arms. Some of them came back and their detox never worked. So people just shove them to the side and push them to the corner. They’re getting flashbacks but no one is helping them. Sometimes they go into an office for help, but they’re told they’re dirty, they smell, get out. Those guys have no way sometimes to take a bath or brush their teeth, or even have teeth.”
“We get very emotional because without them, we would not be who we are,” Michelle says. “They fought for our freedoms, so let’s get them off the streets. We need to give back to them as much as we can.”
Shame on America and Reno
The Mellos say they don’t understand why the city of Reno spent recent surplus money on free wi-fi downtown rather than rehabilitating a few vacant buildings to house the homeless.
“Shame on every American out there that doesn’t help,” Bob says. “You have millionaires and billionaires who could build big buildings with little rooms in there, they could house many homeless veterans, get them back on their feet, get them started and get them going. Don’t shove them in a corner and forget about them. At least give them a chance.”
The Mellos have been doing this together since they became a couple about five years ago. For Michelle, who had already been helping feed the homeless, her motivation just clicked and has gone to higher and higher levels since.
“There’s the veteran who came home from being so proud to being a veteran who came home and can’t find a job and there’s nobody for him. He winds up on the street because he can’t find a job. This is what drives us. This is what makes us the people who we are today.”