ELKO, Nev. (AP) - The sun beat down on Bruce Alexander, who sat in shorts, socks and a beanie at a plastic table in Elko’s homeless camp.
The temperature rose above 90 degrees just after noon, and summer was still on its way.
Alexander, one of several homeless people who moved from camps along the Humboldt River to the site run by Friends In Service Helping, was concerned about the lack of cover for his dog, Little Bear, who panted below the table.
His close pal, Michael O’Hare Jr., sat opposite.
“There ain’t no shade out here,” Alexander said.
The campground is the only legal option for homeless people. With mounting public pressure, city officials designated 5 acres on the west side of town as a spot where the homeless could pitch their tents. But it’s intended to be a temporary solution. At the end of two years, the city is hoping a nonprofit shelter will be operating.
O’Hare and Alexander complied with city directive and relocated to the campsite in the spring. And while neither would say the situation was ideal, the two men were making the most of it.
The tent site, decorated with flags and racecar gear — an homage to O’Hare’s deceased father - was one of about 10 claimed spots. An estimate of homeless campers before the site was complete was more than 60 people. Many homeless people have opted to leave town, according to police, instead of sign up for a campsite.
Both men agreed that a shelter - providing respite from the summer’s relentless heat and mosquitoes - would be preferable to the campsite. But some among the homeless population disagree.
Cary Jacobsen, who said he’d been homeless for about three years after experiencing back problems, doesn’t like the idea of being confined in a dorm-style building. He also expressed concern that his dog might not be allowed to live with him.
Before Jacobsen moved to the homeless camp, he lived near Errecart Bridge in a big, blue tent.
Alexander said he’s been in the Elko area for about 20 years, many of them without a home. In the past, he’d worked low-wage jobs in a couple of casinos, washed dishes and volunteered at Friends In Service Helping, but as he aged, he was unable to continue. Now he’s on Supplemental Security Income, he said. For the past six to eight years, he’d lived near the 12th Street Bridge.
“I can’t work anymore,” he said. “My body’s not up for it.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, D.C.,- based group committed to ending homelessness in this country, identifies three distinct subsets: chronic, episodic and transitional.
Although there is plenty of overlap, those general types of homelessness have unique contributing factors.
Transitionally homeless people, for example, are often forced into homelessness following a catastrophic event, according to the coalition. Chronically and episodically homeless people are more likely to suffer from mental illness or substance addiction and are chronically unemployed.
The coalition’s website describes the chronically homeless as a small population that is “entrenched in the shelter system.” Episodic homeless are often younger individuals who find housing but end up back in shelters, it stated.
Understanding an individual’s particular circumstances and needs is vital in helping him or her out of homelessness, according to U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Regional Coordinator Katy Miller.
In addition to mental illness or substance abuse, Miller said, domestic violence, criminal history or a financial crisis can lead to homelessness, as well as a lack of affordable housing.
“It really is about being clear and sure about what an individual needs,” she said. “We also believe that people recover.”
The homelessness council has developed a federal strategic plan and partnered with 19 agencies aiming to end veteran homelessness by the end of the year, chronic homelessness by the end of 2017, and family and youth homelessness by the end of 2020. The group hopes to outline a path to ending all homelessness eventually.
O’Hare is optimistic that one day he will be in a place of his own, even if it’s an older trailer house or RV.
“If you use your head and you start working, save your money. Stay on top of your money. Don’t be drinking and crap like that ‘cause you’ll never get nowhere,” he said. “If you save your money, you can get yourself a mobile home or a trailer. There’s no sense in giving up.”
Having seen and interacted with many of Elko’s homeless, O’Hare is also sympathetic to their struggles.
“Not everybody out here is capable of going back to work,” he said. “We have a lot of mental issues out here. It’s a lot of things that put some people out here. Some aren’t educated.”
O’Hare said he knows a woman, chronically homeless, who was traumatized by rape and suffered debilitating anxiety.
A shelter would give the chronically homeless an escape from the elements, but it could also help those in Elko who find themselves temporarily homeless.
“Most people in the United States don’t understand they are one or two accidents away from becoming homeless themselves,” said Brandy Miller.
The local resident spoke from experience; she and her family have been homeless three times.
Brandy Miller said her first “terrifying” homeless experience hit her at the most inconvenient time.
“I was pregnant and 19,” she said. “Our family didn’t want to bring us in, so (my husband) and I moved into a car during mid-June in Texas.”
Brandy Miller looked into having her family moved into a shelter, but she and her husband wouldn’t have been able to stay together because the shelters are divided into men only and women only housing.
“That was not an option for us,” she said. “We would rather be homeless than separated.”
The couple also looked into getting help from law enforcement, but Brandy Miller said they were less than cooperative.
“The police were no help,” she said. “All they want to do is pass you along, so they can get on to their next problem. A lot of the time if you are homeless they would arrest you for basically being homeless.”
Brandy Miller said while being homeless isn’t a crime, the officers would place the individuals under arrest for loitering, vandalism or trespassing.
The couple spent just under a month homeless before her husband found employment in another state.
The two and their son made the move with promise that a temporary job would turn into full-time work, but it didn’t.
“We were homeless again and had no option to turn anywhere but back home to Texas,” Brandy Miller said. “After being homeless for three days, some people from our church heard about our situation and took the three of us in.”
Soon after, the Millers came to Elko for another job opportunity, which ended in another professional letdown.
“We became homeless again, but we had learned our lessons from our previous experiences,” she said.
Brandy Miller said there are two factors that will keep people from being homeless after falling down on their luck: their family and the community.
There are also three factors, she said, that put people on the street: a broken family, a broken community and broken people.
“Without help from family, friends or a community you have nothing else to rely on,” she said.
Brandy Miller said the shelters, the police and state were no help for the homeless, so what does she suggest as an individual who has been without a home?
“Don’t give the homeless handouts,” she said. “Give them an opportunity to work and feel like they matter. Give them a chance to earn back their dignity, because it has been shattered. A lot of them have skills that they don’t even know they have. Give them an opportunity to find those skills and utilize them.”
Information from: Elko Daily Free Press, https://www.elkodaily.com
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