A Health Worker in Reno Offering Individual Help for Locals Experiencing Homelessness

Jayme Souza and Isaac Hoops report how one woman is doing her best to help those without stable shelter in northern Nevada in a very unique way, and educating police who accompany her as well during outreach.

Rachel Rosensteel and two UNRPD officers Jacob Ross and Jeff Aguiler aspeak to a woman living in a tent in Sparks, NV, near the Truckee River in an encampment called “The Rabbit Hole”.

Most Reno residents would agree that homelessness in the city has been ramping up pretty drastically as of late, and it seems like the efforts to help people experiencing homelessness is simply not doing enough. Most people are aware of the different programs aimed at assisting those in need, like the food banks and shelters, but many are unaware of the work Rachel Rosensteel is doing with Health Plan of Nevada.

The health and social service coordinator, who is also pursuing a PhD in Public Health with a focus in Community Health, has been working with the health maintenance organization to help those without stable shelter. Health Plan of Nevada offers a variety of different health insurance plans to Nevadans, including through Medicaid, acting as one of their providers.

Rosensteel has a vision to decrease homelessness with a more specialized and individual approach. Working with a team of community health workers, social workers, nurses and doctors, Rosensteel assesses the needs of every person she encounters and reacts accordingly to provide them with the best possible outcome for the future. She has found that it’s not always just the simple solution of getting someone a place to live that helps them get back on their feet.

“We’ve got to really break it down, figure out what’s keeping them there,” she said in a recent interview. “This person says I want to go to the dentist. So, we’re going to do everything we can to get them to the dentist.” She explained that most of the time, giving someone what they need to get through the next couple days or weeks, is what makes the real difference for the long term. “So, then we get the person dentures, and they feel good about themselves, they have the confidence that they need to get out of there, to go into the community and maybe find employment if that’s what they want to do. It’s their journey, it’s not ours, so we can’t dictate what that looks like for them.”

Rosensteel listening to one of the people living in The Rabbit Hole, and jotting down the different things he needs so she doesn’t forget to look into them after leaving.

One of the main components of Rosensteel’s work is educating various agencies who are in constant contact with the population experiencing homelessness, namely police departments, seeing as their officers are oftentimes the first to be called out to interact with the homeless, and sometimes the only contact between them and the rest of the population.

Rosensteel explained that educating the police force about how they should handle people experiencing homelessness is instrumental because they are interacting with them on a daily basis. “There’s no getting around law enforcement engaging with the homeless. They get the calls for service and when the public calls the police for homeless calls, they have to respond, there’s no way around it,” she said.

Rosensteel explained that she has been working with various police departments here in Reno in an attempt to minimize homelessness in the area to the best of her abilities. She began working with the Washoe County Sheriff’s office in 2019, doing walk and talks at the jail. “So that’s when our partnership with law enforcement began, which was a little strange because we had never really worked with law enforcement before. And we were a little hesitant about it, because they never really engaged well with the homeless population. But the sheriff’s office started taking this different approach and started helping the inmates get connected to services,” she said.

Stemming from the initial partnership with the Sheriff’s Office, Rosensteel says she was then contacted by the Sparks Police Department’s H.O.P.E. team, to assist them in their efforts to offer services and aid to those experiencing homelessness in the city of Sparks. “I started working with them and going out with them and helping to really soften their approach. And it’s just been incredible, and I think they have really connected with the population,” she said.

Rosensteel and UNR police officers Ross and Aguilera venture into the encampment located at the Rabbit Hole, while carrying multiple gallons of water down.

Rosensteel stressed the importance of having the police on her side and willing to learn new ways. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to teach them how to be more trauma informed, teach them about motivational interviewing, harm reduction, adverse childhood experiences, really show them that these people have been through so much in their lives and being homeless is hard and it’s not just as easy as getting an apartment, and moving off the streets,” she said. She also explained that giving the police these tools proves to be massively important because it not only strengthens their rapport with homeless individuals, but it also creates a trusting relationship, where these individuals feel more comfortable accepting the help being offered to them.

Earlier this year UNR’s campus police became the latest police agency to seek out help and education from Rosensteel and her team. UNR Police Services created two positions for officers focusing on homeless outreach on and around the various UNR campuses and owned land. The two officers who volunteered to work in this position are Jeff Aguilera and Jacob Ross, who patrol the properties owned by the university. They explained their process for interactions with homeless individuals saying their main focus is to provide people with the resources they are eligible for, and to get them housed. “It actually saves [the city] money to get those people housed. Medicaid has a bunch of different plans, but Health Plan of Nevada is basically the main one that can help people who are experiencing homelessness–that’s where we see the greatest successes,” said officer Ross.

UNR students who are in precarious economic situations themselves have access to various resources on campus. These include Pack Provisions, counseling services and urgent care through the student health center. However, for students who are uninsured, any medical expense can be very costly. A focus for the UNR police department this summer is to continue working with Health Plan of Nevada, this time working to provide Medicaid resources to students who are uninsured. Officer Ross explained how many students are probably eligible for insurance through Medicaid. “What college student makes more than 17 grand a year? Probably not many. So those people are the ones that we’re going to be able to reach out to to get them medical insurance,” he said.

In June, the UNR police department will work with clubs and organizations from ASUN to assist students in understanding eligibility, and in signing up for Medicaid benefits.

Reporting by Jayme Souza and Isaac Hoops for the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.