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City programs aim to help unhoused people move into employment, stability

Participants tackle obstacles to finding work and housing while getting assistance through Reno Works, one of several Nevada job programs.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
HousingLocal Government
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On a late morning in mid-November, it was clear a celebration was about to take place in Reno City Hall chambers. The podium below the mayor's seat was adorned with a metallic “Congratulations” banner, and gold and silver balloons floated above the council’s seats. 

City council meetings are the typical event here, but on Nov. 14, the space held a graduation ceremony for Reno Works, a program to help people transition out of homelessness.

“I'm feeling marvelous,” graduate Jason Mathewson said following the ceremony. 

The program began in 2015 when Volunteers of America and then-Councilwoman Neoma Jardon had the idea to start an employment program for the unhoused population. Since then, 110 people have graduated from the program.

“I’m just immensely proud of the graduates,” Jardon said after the ceremony.

Reno Works recruits participants by advertising the program to case workers and within the local shelters. After they are selected, participants work for the City of Reno performing tasks such as cleaning up parks. Meanwhile, staff and local businesses help people in the program develop their resumes, engage in mock interviews and pursue employment opportunities. Graduates receive not only employment assistance, but housing assistance as well. 

While the city has been unable to create a complete dataset because some participants did not respond to follow-up communications, data it does have shows that 74 percent of the people who participated in Reno Works had graduated. Of those graduates, 82 percent had housing within three months of completing the Reno Works program. More than half found employment within the same time frame. 

Data also showed a slight but steady decrease — about 1 percent every three months — of graduates housed and employed within the first year after graduation.

Mathewson said he is currently working for the fire and parks departments. The Reno Works program didn’t just help him find employment and housing but connected him with people going through similar experiences, he said.

“The program worked well. I was able to help not just myself, but other folks,” Mathewson said.

Decorations set up at Reno City Hall for the Reno Works graduation on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Employment programs throughout Nevada

Similar programs are offered in Southern Nevada as well. Second Chance Employment is a program through the City of Las Vegas that assists people experiencing homelessness find employment and housing. The program also serves people reentering society after being incarcerated.

In addition to housing and employment aid, people who participate in Second Chance Employment can receive transportation assistance, legal services and case management help. 

Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said that of the 73 people who decided they were no longer in need of the program, 37 percent gained employment and 26 percent had stable housing. The remainder left for other reasons.

Several other employment programs exist throughout Clark County, including through the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

EmployNV career offices can also be found in most towns in Nevada, including in rural and frontier areas.

Reno Works graduates pose for a group photo at Reno City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Barriers to employment

A June 2021 national study by the University of Chicago found that about 53 percent of people living in a shelter were employed, and over 40 percent of people living without shelter were employed. 

In rural Nevada, employment without sufficient housing supply could be one reason people become unhoused, according to Frederick Steinnman, director of the University Center for Economic Development at UNR.

“This is kind of when you become the victim of your success,” Steinmann said during an interview with The Nevada Independent earlier this year. “A lot of people flock in, and you can't build the housing fast enough.”

Others are employed until they lose their housing. To stay employed, a person needs consistent access to hygiene facilities, a stable place to rest and reliable transportation, all of which become more difficult when a person doesn’t have a fixed address. 

Starting the employment process is also difficult for someone experiencing homelessness because most job applications require a potential employee to provide a permanent address. That’s one barrier lawmakers worked to break down during the 2023 legislative session.

SB317, which became law, allows homeless service providers to permit a person without a fixed address to use their mailing address. Though this helps mitigate one struggle for those looking for employment while experiencing homelessness, others persist.

Employers are 50 percent less likely to call back a person with a criminal record. The barriers to employment coupled with housing discrimination and lack of affordable housing are some of the reasons people who have been incarcerated are at a significantly higher risk of being unhoused and unemployed.  

The Prison Policy Initiative reported that people who were formerly incarcerated are over 27 percent more likely to be unemployed than the general population, and are also 10 times more likely to be homeless.

Former Councilwoman Neoma Jardon speaks at the Reno Works graduation at Reno City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Alternative assistance

Though employment programs are shown to help some people transition out of homelessness, no service is one-size-fits-all.

“Sometimes the second chance employment program may be the right fit. Other times a community partner may have a program that is a better fit,” Radke wrote in an email to The Nevada Independent.

For some people, it may be impossible to work.

A significant physical injury or constant debilitating physical or mental illness can make consistent employment out of reach. People 60 and older are one of the fastest-growing demographics among those experiencing homelessness. 

The federal Social Security Administration reported in 2021 that about 25 percent to 30 percent of the unhoused population has a severe physical or mental disability.

Though there is no one reason for the increased homelessness rate among seniors, PBS cited the lack of widespread safety nets, mass incarceration policies and insufficient affordable housing supply as factors.

Housing assistance — including funds to help people pay rent or a security deposit, and legal services — is available for Washoe and Clark county residents who qualify. Nevada Rural Housing provides similar services for the remaining counties.

Volunteers of America Supervisor Kareem O'Neal speaks at the Reno Works graduation at Reno City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Community involvement

City of Reno and Volunteers of America officials said it is not just the two founding entities but the entire community that helped make the Reno Works program possible.

Though Reno has given more than $310,000 to fund Reno Works, local businesses and nonprofits have also provided more than $287,000 in donations to keep the program in operation. 

“It's part donation both by folks in the community — whether that's businesses doing in-kind donations, monetary donations — and then some money from the City of Reno as well,” said Volunteers of America Northern Nevada Vice President Travis Sandefur. “I think the funding is actually reflective of … the partnership.”

Businesses — including Tesla and College Hunks Hauling Junk — are recruited as potential employers for Reno Works. Reno’s Parks and Recreation Department and Washoe County School District are also among the program’s partners.

Nonprofit organizations and businesses also provide essential services for those transitioning out of homelessness. The Katie Grace Foundation provides “apartment in a box” that incorporates supplies that a person moving into an apartment would need such as toiletries and kitchen utensils and cookware. The Good Shepherd’s Clothing Closet furnishes professional clothing for participants and Caliber Hair & Makeup Studio cuts graduates' hair.

“I've learned with our partners within this specific session … that they're so instrumental to helping these guys get their lives back,” said Reno Works supervisor Kareem O’Neal. 

O’Neal said he is looking forward to what the future holds for Reno Works graduates.

“I'm just super excited to be a part of the bigger picture of what we get the privilege to do and that's to serve our community, serve our participants,” he said.

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