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COVID-19 Threatens Reno's Unsheltered Population And Service Providers


Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada

Food being prepared at a warming center in Reno.

The coronavirus has arrived in Nevada, triggering a mandate from Governor Steve Sisolak that all non-essential businesses should close. He also told people not to gather in large groups or go to events, in order to slow the disease’s spread.

COVID-19 can be devastating, especially for people with chronic illnesses, seniors and other vulnerable groups.

In Reno, the number of people experiencing homelessness has been climbing for the last several years. The unsheltered population there is exposed to the elements – including some late-season snow – and they’re more likely to have underlying conditions.


Grant Denton is an outreach coordinator and operations manager for Downtown Reno Partnership. Denton and his group of ambassadors usually talk with the homeless and then connect them to services. 

Since the outbreak, that has changed.

“Our mission has shifted from what we regularly do – clean, safe and friendly – to right now, we’re educating and working with this population on what we should be doing to protect ourselves,” he said.

Denton said they're talking to the homeless population about the virus and how to protect themselves because many don't even know there is an outbreak going on.

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His team is wearing gloves, carrying hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes with them. Those with a cough are wearing masks.

Dr. Eithne-Marie Barton is the chief medical officer for Community Health Alliance, which runs seven clinics around Washoe County. Every clinic provides services for the homeless. 

Dr. Barton said the clinics have set up tents where people can be triaged before entering the main building. They're taking their temperatures and asking them about possible exposure to the virus.

If there are concerns because of symptoms like fever, fatigue, cough and difficulty breathing, the clinics contact the Washoe County health district about what is next for the patient.

Dr. Barton said that having someone who is positive in public spaces puts everyone at risk.

“They are out and about in the environment and that makes it difficult for them as well as for the rest of our community, unfortunately,” she said.

The problem is not just one person having the disease, but hundreds getting it and overwhelming the system.

 “Across the country, ICU beds are limited. Depending on... how quickly things get critical, our system will be overwhelmed and, unfortunately, Reno is no better prepared than the rest of the country, I feel,” Dr. Barton said.

Health care clinics provide unique challenges but so do food pantries and dining areas. Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada runs the St. Vincent dining room, which provides hot meals for people in need.

Marie Baxter is the CEO of CCNN. She said about three weeks ago the charity closed the dining room and started only handing out food in to-go boxes.

They work to make sure no one queues up for the food and that they don't crowd around the building when they do get their meal.

The charity also runs a food pantry. The pantry now only signs one person in at a time and they don't allow lines to form. Baxter said they've also moved all case management to phone-based.

“We really want to serve people but also really making sure we’re embracing social distancing as much as possible,” she said.

So far, Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada has not heard any complaints about the policies. In fact, Baxter said people are happy that the services are still available because a lot of other nonprofits have closed their doors.

“They’re still feeling that sense of community connection even if we’re having to stay six to eight feet apart,” she said.

With layoffs and job cutbacks, many are expecting to see an influx of new people needing services. Baxter said, at this point, that hasn't happened. 

“We’re not see a massive rush of new individuals either. That may change as things change in our community but right now it’s been relatively slow and steady with the individuals we’re used to seeing,” she said.

The charity has cut back on volunteers. Baxter said because many of their volunteers are older people they felt it was safer to strictly limit the number of volunteers it uses.

Instead, she would like people who have the means to donate what they can.

“We know it is an uncertain time out there but not everybody is facing that uncertainty and we’re hoping that they will feel that they can step up and help all those people in our community that are facing uncertainty,” she said.


Grant Denton, formerly homeless outreach coordinator/Operations Manager, Downtown Reno Partnership; Marie Baxter, CEO, Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada; Dr. Eithne-Marie Barton, DO, Chief Medical Officer, Community Health Alliance

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