This article originally appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal.
This is a Christmas story about Charles Anderson and Cailen Gersch.
You didn’t know Mr. Anderson’s name, but you may have seen him, drunk and unkempt, on the downtown Reno streets where he’d been living for years. At least, we have. Since our involvement with the Downtown Reno Partnership as the chair and vice chair of the board, we’ve become more sensitive to the complexity of homeless issues.
And you may not have met Ms. Gersch, either. She’s a social outreach coordinator with the Ambassador program of the Downtown Reno Partnership. She’s good at her job. After all, she lived on the streets herself for three years.
You’ve seen the Ambassadors in their blue and black uniforms. They help visitors to downtown. They alert the City to problems. And they build relationships with the chronically homeless.
When we heard about Mr. Anderson’s recovery, we were curious to learn more about his story. He’s 63 and has lived in Reno for 50 years. He worked in construction. He worked at warehouses. He was a popular bartender at Reno nightclubs.
He drank. He drank a lot for 30 years. He lived on the streets through summer and winter for at least five years. Some of the details are lost to his memory. Mr. Anderson became a well-known person in downtown; business owners didn’t want him around.
About all he had left was his Christian faith. But even that faith provided a thin blanket on a cold night.
Ambassador Gersch, the other person in this story, joined the Downtown Reno Partnership team last spring. It didn’t take long to see the empathy and experience she brought to the challenging work of building relationships with people experiencing homelessness. She became one of the social outreach ambassadors a few months after she joined the team. Slowly, she began building a relationship with Mr. Anderson. They talked about Fords and Chevys. After a while, they talked about his drinking, too.
Reno Municipal Court Judge Tammy Riggs, creator of the Community Court, was weary of Mr. Anderson’s open-container violations and other misdemeanors and strongly encouraged him to get sober.
Somehow, it clicked. After 30 years of drinking, Mr. Anderson put his faith and willpower to the test. He’s been sober since September.
The court helped him set up an account with Fiduciary Services of Nevada. He was distrustful of the service at first. But Ambassador Gersch explained the value of using a service that helps him save money for bills and groceries.
With Ambassador Gersch’s support, he moved off the street and into a tiny apartment that he can afford — barely — on his check from Social Security. Food Stamps keep hunger at bay. Fiduciary Services of Nevada keeps his financial affairs in order.
Ambassador Gersch is not a trained social worker. She just helped Mr. Anderson find some of the services that would help. And she was his friend when nobody in town wanted to be his friend.
“She’s got a good heart,” Mr. Anderson said. “A really good heart.”
Ambassador Gersch isn’t alone. All 20 Ambassadors who work with the Downtown Reno Partnership have good hearts. They keep downtown safe, clean and friendly. Increasingly, the Ambassadors are committed to doing whatever it takes to help chronically homeless people find permanent housing. They’ve helped dozens of people get their lives together and now they’re using Mr. Anderson’s experience as a new model for an individualized approach.
This Christmas, Mr. Anderson plans to be in touch with his sister and her family in California. The relationship was strained in the past, but now they are in near-daily contact.
Mr. Anderson said he may also go for a stroll around town on Christmas Day. It’s important, he says, to get some exercise. It keeps the blood circulating and keeps a man healthy.
We’re so proud of the work the Downtown Reno Partnership does every day to lift people’s spirits. We hope Charles’ story lifted yours, too.
Par Tolles is board vice chair. Cindy Carano is board chair for the Downtown Reno Partnership.