Local nonprofits work to uplift Northern Nevada female youth
Special to the NNBV
RENO, Nev. — As the city of Reno undergoes a drastic influx of people moving to the region, another population is on the rise: that of homeless youth.
Northern Nevada has the highest rate of homeless youth in the entire nation, and with it comes a variety of compounding health and safety issues for these young adults and minors.
Yet, organizations such as Eddy House, Awaken Reno, Northern Nevada HOPES and Nevada Empowered Youth Project (NYEP) work diligently to provide temporary and long-term relief, seeking solutions to eradicate the cycle of homelessness and the risks that accompany it, such as drug abuse, sex trafficking, and general exposure to risky environments that threaten one’s health and wellbeing.
In 2015, Eddy House aided 200 homeless, foster, runaway, and other at-risk youths between the ages of 12 and 24 years old. By 2017, the number jumped to 769.
“We’re going to see over a thousand kids in 2018,” said Michele Gehr, executive director of Eddy House. “We no longer have the staff to do outreach; the kids find us. We’ve done the work with less than a dozen staff.”
Northern Nevada HOPES has also experienced growth, transitioning from a small HIV clinic to one that serves 10,000 patients. Of these 10,000, about 25 percent experience homelessness. Among its various programs offered is the Housed and Healthy Program.
As HOPES Chief Executive Officer Sharon Chamberlain said, “When an individual is housed, their health improves. It’s easier to manage your diabetes or other medical problems when you have that stability.”
Lack of such bring decreased life expectancy, increased substance use, and mental and behavioral illnesses going untreated.
Homeless youth also face abuse from older homeless populations. For homeless young women and girls, this manifests as sexual abuse, acting as a seque into sex trafficking and prostitution.
According to statistics provided by Awaken Reno of roughly 1,500 individuals sold for sex online in Northern Nevada, between 900 to 1,000 of those are in Reno-Sparks, alone.
Awaken works to empower young women and girls, helping them escape sex work, and conservatively estimates that 300 minors are trafficked or at high risk to become victims of sex trafficking in the Reno area per year.
Contrary to local ideology, the legalization of prostitution does not lessen sex trafficking, but actually fosters an environment that exacerbates it, and can be seen on a global level.
“When you legalize prostitution, you are waving the flag for traffickers,” said Melissa Holland, co-founder and executive director of Awaken. “In economic terms it’s a matter of supply and demand. By creating a product of women, you create a market in which men will buy women.
“Prostitution is inherently connected to sex trafficking.”
NYEP serves “willing and capable” young women, ages 18-24, with the opportunity to learn fundamental life skills, such as time management, cooking, and employment techniques, while providing the support needed to ensure they succeed in obtaining a high school level education and beyond.
Monica DuPea, a self-proclaimed “nobody who only became a somebody when I began to say something” about the crisis of homeless youth, founded the organization more than 10 years ago.
NYEP seeks long-term solutions to the problem of homeless youth in the local community, working to help young women “reach their highest form of potential and to become productive members of society,” said DuPea.
Yet despite the successes and vision of these philanthropic organizations, each struggle in the face of the region’s current housing crisis.
“A nonprofit exists to solve a social issue,” said Gehr, adding that programs designed to help these youth seek and maintain employment, as well as find and provide affordable housing, are now imperiled due to the unaffordable cost of rent throughout the city, and minimum wage jobs these young people have when working to rebuild their lives.
“We are in crisis mode,” said DuPea. “We are looking for a long-term solution, but the only interest people have is in building things we can charge for.”
The community’s approach of providing only temporary relief, actually emburdens the community in the long run more than if a permanent solution were implemented.
“Homeless individuals develop chronic conditions, and this costs more to fix later on,” said Chamberlain.
Ultimately, it is more cost effective for the community to work towards ending the cycle of homelessness, a goal that is not unrealistic if intervention happens before the age of 25.
But the reality of the current housing crisis challenges the stereotype of the homeless as the unemployed.
“We are beginning to see individuals living on the river who are employed and unable to find safe and affordable housing,” said Chamberlain, “And it’s not going to get better without intentionally applied resources.”
The lack of a shelter specifically for Reno’s homeless youth only perpetuates the cycle of homelessness within the community.
“Transitional-age youth are not comfortable in shelters because their predators on the streets also access the services provided by the shelter,” Chamberlain said, “Old and young have entirely separate needs that are not being considered.”
New programs, community education initiatives, and fundraising campaigns are being initiated in an attempt to minimize the problem and those that correspond with at-risk youth.
NYEP is initiating an Intergenerational Housing program, wherein NYEP graduates may move in with the local elderly, providing the young women with a mentor and lower rent costs, and the old with a companion to help them with daily tasks.
Eddy House launched a campaign this month called Devante’s Gift, where 1,000 families pledge $1,000 in a year, at $83.33 per month to help fund Eddy House in their efforts. Awaken offers educational training to area businesses so that they can become active participants in identifying signs of human trafficking, and have the proper tools to respond accordingly.
Beyond the differences in the specific focus of each organization, a common thread — the need for a youth shelter — runs between them. Their leaders are impassioned by the need they see, and call on the community to get educated about the problem, and become part of the solution.
The streets keep the lives of these youth in a state of instability and risk, depriving them of the chance to look beyond the day to day, to dream for and take action towards their future.
“We as a community are not empowering the generation we could use and are not meeting indicators of youth success,” DuPea said. “We’re just placing them from the child welfare system to the adult welfare system.”
Children are often likened to the future of a nation, and the same could be said of a community’s youth; how the community addresses the problems facing its youth ultimately determines the long-term prosperity of that community.
“Community is essential to solving these problems,” Holland said, “A healthy community has a culture of unconditional love and acceptance … it is our goal to create a space where love can exist.”
How these challenges are resolved moving forward lies in how our community and its leadership responds.
“These are your kids,” said Gehr, “It’s an adult problem to solve and it’s gonna be up to the community to fix it.”
Emily Delbecq was a contributing writer to the Sierra Nevada Powerful Woman magazine. Click here to read a digital copy of the magazine.
Construction of the project is estimated at $47 million and is scheduled to be complete in the first quarter of 2020, according to a news release.