“We know what the causes of homelessness are. We understand that many of our clients experience great trauma in their lives that hinders their ability to thrive. We understand that trauma can lead to shame, isolation, and even addiction. We understand how addiction can lead to homelessness, mental illnesses, and lead to an outcome of living on the streets alone and frightened,” says Leo McFarland, president and CEO of the Northern Nevada/Northern California affiliate.
McFarland has been with VOA since 1978, where he got his start helping chronic alcoholics find shelter and recovery services in Sacramento. He saw how the program changed the lives of men and women who were on the brink of death, and discovered his passion for helping people find hope. After that experience, he chose to dedicate his career to serving others. McFarland became President and CEO of the local VOA affiliate in 1985.
“We are operating programs that serve a cross section of individuals from families to seniors all who are struggling with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction and trauma,” McFarland said. “And we do that through a variety of housing solutions: affordable housing, transitional housing, emergency shelter. We have nearly 400 employees and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that maximize the impact we make in the community.”
Over the last century, VOA has helped everyone from the unemployed during the Great Depression to soldiers’ families during the World Wars. The organization got its start in 1896 in New York, where founders Ballington and Maud Charlesworth Booth decided to create an organization dedicated to serving those in need. Many of the people they assisted in the early years were Civil War veterans and their families who still felt the effects of the war. These men and women were struggling with moral injury, alcoholism, injury, and lack of healthcare, says McFarland, “our mission hasn’t changed but our structure has.”
In 1985, branches became affiliates, allowing them to create their own board of directors and decide themselves where to allocate resources and time. “So that’s where you start asking, ‘What does our town need?’” McFarland said. “How can we help? What kind of programs can we devise? So we began creating outreach programs, began creating shelters, and began creating services that help individuals build the foundations they need to leave homelessness behind for good.”
The Focus Today
While homelessness continues to be a major part of the VOA’s work, McFarland says it’s more than building shelters or clothing drives. It is about helping individuals find hope and reach their full potential in life. This understanding prompted VOA to merge with ReStart, a mental health nonprofit designed specifically for those experiencing homelessness and facing a mental health diagnosis. Now a program of VOA, the ReStart program pairs clients with a professional counselor and case management services, walking with clients on their path toward independence.
In addition to providing these services, VOA is also one of the top developers of affordable housing in the United States. Nationwide, they’ve created 19,426 affordable housing units. In Reno alone, there are 386 affordable units for seniors, men, women, and those with disabilities. And they’re still not done: VOA has partnered with the local government to operate the CARES Campus, which shelters up to 600 individuals daily.
Partnerships like these, McFarland says, are key to amplifying VOA’s impact in the local community. VOA would not be able to do what they’ve done without the partnership of local government, foundations, individuals and key community leaders, including Reno City Councilman Devon Reese.
“I’ve worked with VOA for more than 20 years,” Reese said. “They are one of the oldest and largest nonprofits in the United States working among our most vulnerable communities. The work they do each day is life-saving, life-changing, and life-affirming.”