Carson's Homeless: Few options available for the estimated 1,510 homeless in Carson City

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Mary and Dave - names have been changed for privacy - have made a life for their family on the edge of the Carson River after his illness left them without income. Sheriff's patrol will begin clearing the area next weekend.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Mary and Dave - names have been changed for privacy - have made a life for their family on the edge of the Carson River after his illness left them without income. Sheriff's patrol will begin clearing the area next weekend.

Dave sits in a truck, resting his aching, cramped leg. The fishing pole propped against it reminds him he wanted to take his boys fishing, but it probably won't happen today.

In the yard is a blue storage tub full of fresh water he retrieved from a cold spring percolating down the river. It warms under the hot sun so his children can bathe in it later, washing off caked-on dirt.

"Hi!" one of the blond boys yells out with a bright giggle as he wiggles his fingers through a chicken-wire fence protecting a small garden area connected to their Coachman RV.

Like many, they are homeless and have found a way to carve out an existence on the banks of the Carson River.

Dogs bark out a warning to an approaching stranger, and Mom pulls her children quickly inside.

With a lazy river backdrop,

the peaceful homestead life is simple. Sometimes a snake slithers through the sandy dirt and sagebrush, but their cat keeps the mice away. They have clean clothes and a working freezer to keep food fresh.

The small family joined an estimated 1,510 homeless people in Carson City, according to a city economic development report released in May. The count is based on the number of homeless children enrolled in local schools.

Eleven other families live near Dave and Mary's site, alongside adults in nylon tents or makeshift shelters. Some live in cars and camper shells.

A mounted sheriff's posse will begin removing them next weekend, but many don't know that, Property owner John Serpa, who has owned the parcel for more than 20 years, is concerned about insurance liability, and law enforcement is obligated to clear people out.

"We can't have anybody on the land," Serpa said. "It's against the law."

Dave said they've been told to leave before, and many times people do move on, but he can't afford to pack up until he gets his disability check.

The community has grown quickly in the past year on the privately owned pocket of Carson River Canyon near Brunswick Canyon. Patrols on public lands cleared them from other parts of the river.

For four-wheel enthusiast Walter Corleto - who works at the state unemployment office - it's time for the campers to leave. He was barbecuing by the river recently when a man approached, got out his mattress, and set up a tent in front of him.

"It was very un-polite," he said. "I wasn't going to argue with them; they were dirty and scary-looking people."

A year ago, Dave and Mary (their names have been altered by request) lived in a house with an at-home sitter who watched the boys while they worked. They earned about $5,000 a month in restaurant management.

Dave then was stricken with a debilitating disease that attacked his muscles. It left him disabled with five years to live.

He still waits for his first federal disability check six months after filing. With few options for temporary housing and services, the couple lives meagerly on Mary's part-time paycheck from Wal-Mart.

The story is common in Northern Nevada, local organizations say. Skyrocketing rents, steep rent deposits and few emergency stop-gap programs are forcing desperate families to share one room in a motel and others to sleep in bushes and tents while they wait nearly a year for federal assistance to begin.

"If you are homeless, there are few options you have," said Dee Dee Foremaster, director for the city's Rural Center for Independent Living. "If you really need housing immediately, there isn't any."

Foremaster said she receives at least two calls a year from professionals like Dave who are either just about to lose everything or have already become homeless.

The private nonprofit center, staffed by volunteers, serves about 400 people a year. One-third of those are homeless or have problems with housing. Most of those have mental or physical disabilities. Alcohol use is prevalent, Foremaster said.

The center mainly helps clients file disability paperwork and find apartments. Sometimes that leaves Foremaster wheeling and dealing for deposits and rooms, piecing together different programs.

"What I do works," Foremaster said. "You have to be there; you have to be relentless."

Affordable and immediate housing is sparse, especially disabled-accessible housing. About 1,000 residents are on the two-year waiting list for federal housing vouchers.

"We have good places here, but rents are out of control," said Terry Smith, Section 8 director of the Nevada Rural Housing Authority.

The city has one complex that serves disabled residents with a 24-hour staff for medical and living needs and provides meals while allowing them to live in their own apartments.

Friends in Service Helping is a valuable local emergency resource for homeless and needy residents. It provides food, clothing, gas vouchers and two homeless shelters - a men's shelter with 15 regularly filled beds and a family shelter with 30 beds.

FISH helps individuals and families up to a point, if they can show they are working to end their plight. Dave and Mary's family got what they could from the organization, but it didn't last.

The river offers families a temporary home, and for some it's now a way of life.

On one side of the river lives a population of drug users, said a friend of a resident who hitched a ride to the camp Wednesday. It's better to stay on the south side, where the families work full-time jobs, he said.

Dave and Mary's camper is operated with propane and a generator for cooking and refrigeration. Some people set food and drinks in the river to cool.

Across the river, Dave keeps an eye on Pat's homemade teepee when he's away. "Country" is another resident who's a nudist and throws parties once in a while. Another couple who recently arrived from California set up camp until they can find work and a place to live in town.

One man living in a camper shell lost his license from drunken driving and now runs his tree-cutting business from the river. His worker picks him up each morning.

Tonight, neighboring families will get together at Dave and Mary's place for a barbecue.

"We have everything most people in town have," Dave said. "Most people out here aren't that lucky."

The couple treasures their time together, trying not to think about their twist of fate.

"We're doing OK," Mary said. "God doesn't give you too much to handle. Our family life is actually happier now."

She gets to spend time with her children and is home-schooling her oldest boy, who has excelled in his latest tests. Living far from the American dream, her fingernails are freshly painted with U.S. flags as she hugs her husband.

"Life is life - you take it as it comes," Dave said.

Contact Jill Lufrano at or 881-1217.


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