Coordinating the Shelter's Overflow Tent this Past Winter
Emily Montan, 60, a former school teacher, East Coast native, Oakland retired transplant and volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada, coordinated the recent parking lot overflow heated tent outside the downtown Record Street homeless shelter, a volunteer through the night service which began in January and ended at the end of March. She was happy the program was allowed to proceed, but still feels the city isn’t doing nearly enough to address homelessness, rampant mental illness in the Biggest Little City and the lack of affordable housing.
“I mean putting up the tent was just a band aid onto a huge deep wound,” she said. “And so, the city needs to do a lot more to provide affordable housing to people, provide better services, mental health services, affordable mental health services. And there are so many people that came through (the tent) like there were pregnant women… People that didn't have teeth. You know we also help feed our neighbors and some of them have to eat soft food because they can't chew.”
The above Our Town Reno video includes footage from inside the overflow tent.
A Volunteer Operation
Montan says she had mixed feelings about the tent being volunteer driven but felt it was a necessary endeavor.
“Our taxes should be paying for that. But they aren't. So, we stand up… That's one thing about my church. We are all part of each other and we all help to help each other. And so, when I was asked to help, I said ‘absolutely’.”
Sadly, she says the extra tent was very much needed. “Some nights, they were so full they had double bunked them. So they had mats on this floor. They were horrible mats and then they got better mattresses and then they got bunk beds so they double bunked them. And then they had to open up the resource center (at the homeless shelter) which is really not a sleeping place … it's a place that people go who don't have homes can get mail, they can get resources to help them you know find jobs or get sober and give them training and stuff so they ended up even opening up the resource center and using the classrooms for the people who did not have homes to sleep in because everything was full.”
Two to three volunteers helped each night at the tent. Reno also uses a warehouse as another emergency overflow area on 265 Washington Street, but that is manned by employees from Volunteers of America, which also runs the main shelter on Record Street.
Montana says she’s very proud of the other volunteers who also stepped up.
“We should help each other because we're all human and we all deserve respect,” she said.
Challenges and Hopes for More Affordable Housing
There were many challenges including safety, rainy nights with leaks, inadequate mattresses, dealing with interactions inside the tent, and being required to keep a light on inside at all times.
“We had to keep one light on which really disturbed me, because these people need to sleep just like everybody else. And I know some people don't like to sleep in the light. It also disturbed me that initially the mattresses they provided were like a quarter inch thick before they got the thicker mattresses and come on you know if we're going to provide sleeping shelter and beds to sleep then we should provide halfway decent ones. So of course, they were on the floor and the floor of the tent was the parking lot. So, it was kind of gross and of course a lot of these people don't have access to showers and things like that. “
They were also forced to get everyone out of the tent by 5:30 every morning. Montan is hoping the tent won’t be needed next winter, but she’s afraid the need might be even greater.
She wants Nevada to imitate other states, such as California, by requiring municipalities to have a certain number of affordable units. The California Supreme Court has also ruled for cities and counties to require developers to sell some housing at below-market rates.
“It needs to happen in Reno and in Las Vegas,” she said. “I think that we need to insist that housing a certain percentage should be affordable and that we need to help each other because we are on this planet together. And I don't just don't mean locally. But I come from a background where you act locally and you affect things globally.”
More Home Ownership and Getting Developers to Help
Montan believes developers have a duty to help, including with tiny homes and other solutions. She thinks having more help and more pipelines for more home ownership would also be crucial.
“The developers who are making plenty of money in Reno and building housing ... They should help pay for it too by providing some affordable units whether it's a tiny house or it's a condo or a small apartment. We ought to have programs that help people who want to own a house, who want to care about their neighborhood but can't get the initial down payment and to provide them loans to do that so they can buy small houses. My mom used to do that in the poor areas of New Jersey and it works very well. People get help, can buy houses for their families and provide decent shelter and then they can pay for it and they can be homeowners because there's a different sense of ownership, when you do own it. So, you say if you own the house or the unit you're more wanting to take care of that and your neighborhood because you want a safe neighborhood for you and your family. So, I think any kind of ownership helps people to be part of the neighborhood which I think is really important.”
Montana suffers from depression as well and feels special sympathy for others with mental illnesses living in harsh conditions.
“I come from a place where I've always had support. What if you're mentally ill and you come from a very poor family where mental illness has always been pervasive and nobody's been treated properly because of health insurance problems? It took a long time for me to figure out what medication would work for me. A lot of people don't have that luxury of time and money to do that,” she said.
The Importance of Giving Back and Fighting Bad Proposals
Montan has healthy habits to help such as yoga, singing in her church’s choir, and giving back, cooking for the hungry, helping her husband, and volunteering at the Casa Latina, where she assists abused people who are undocumented who feel doubly trapped.
Montana says she feels some of the new anti vagrancy efforts in Reno will especially target those living on the margins and with mental issues, and will be costly to execute with little gain.
“It's so much cheaper in the long run to provide housing and to provide mental health services. And these laws don't do anything to fix the problem, all they do is make people feel like ‘oh I'm safer’. No, you're not safe. Because you're one paycheck away from homelessness. My husband is disabled and we were living in Oakland, we were one paycheck away from being homeless. I thank God, we had families that have money and if we ever ran into a problem we could you know ask for help but most people don't have that. So, you know this is a problem for all of us and we all need to dig deep and think about real solutions and not band aids,” she concluded.