Grant Denton, known as the “Karma Box guy” in the Truckee Meadows, has experienced life on the streets firsthand. Once homeless, a drug addict and in and out of jail, Denton has learned valuable lessons about life and how to survive—and his experiences inform the projects he creates to help unsheltered people.
Now sober, employed and a father, Denton is on a mission to help others get off the streets and back to a better life. Public officials say he brings a keen understanding of street culture and the difficulties of escaping homelessness to the table.
The Karma Box Project, a network of containers placed around the city, was his baby, and like a responsible parent, Denton has allowed the mature program to go out into the world to make its own way. The boxes, in various sizes—including some former Reno News & Review newspaper boxes—are decorated and filled with essentials like one-use toiletries and snacks. The cadre of containers is now maintained by community organizations and individuals.
“It’s a community initiative now,” Denton said.
The original boxes placed by Denton have been joined by others. Darlene Martensen of Stead started her own project in September 2020 after seeing long lines of cars waiting in line at food pantries
“I thought, ‘I can do something about this,’” she said.
After repurposing some donated dressers with shelves, she put them out on her street with a few cans of food and the Karma Box sign: “If it’s empty, fill it. If you need it, it’s yours.”
She was shocked at the response. “It just took off,” she said. Her post on Facebook drew more than 800 comments. She partnered with a neighbor who serves the Sky Vista area. Donations soared. A truck donated for a week by U-Haul was filled to capacity with food and items for the victims of the Caldor Fire, she said.
“People want to help but don’t know how,” Martensen said.
Download a map of Karma Box locations
Safe Camp: tents near the shelter
With the Karma Boxes in good hands, Denton’s energies are now directed toward several emerging programs that also help unsheltered people: Safe Camp, River Stewards, Street Keepers, Karma Krib and GRIT.
Denton decided to start Safe Camp, a temporary camp next to the Washoe County shelter, after he spent a week one summer under the Wells Avenue bridge, getting to know the people who lived there. “You have to be there constantly to develop relationships of trust and rapport,” he said.
When Washoe County and city governments acquired the Governor’s Bowl Park in 2021, a temporary camp site was established there. Tents, sleeping bags and cots were provided for homeless who did not want to live in the large communal shelter. “We learned that tents were not sustainable for winter,” Denton said. “We learned the complexities of staying warm.”
To provide warmer—and more secure—shelters, Washoe County purchased 52 modular “pods,” or “mod pods,” small one-room structures with a bed, heating and air conditioning, electricity, lights and, most importantly, a door with a lock.
While the current 45 occupants of the mod pods are in a safer place now, the organizers are working to get them to make further moves to self-sufficiency, Denton said. “This is a springboard, not a permanent solution,” he said.
A referral from partner agencies is required for those seeking to live at Safe Camp, said Bethany Drysdale, Washoe County media and communications manager. Occupants must agree to work with a county case worker to create a path to permanent housing.
Drysdale said Denton has been involved from the beginning of the pilot program and was hired as an emergency contractor. His nonprofit, the Karma Box Project, won the bid to manage the facility, and he now oversees the day-to-day operations of Safe Camp. Karma Box Project has 13 staff members and is funded by Washoe County and the city of Reno, with support from the city of Sparks.
“He is an invaluable partner,” Drysdale said. “He brings his personal knowledge and expertise.”
Denton also leads two programs that bring two to four homeless volunteers per day, recruited from a shelter or off the streets, into the community on supervised work assignments.
River Stewards clean up trash along the Truckee River, and Street Keepers do cleanup work at abandoned camps in the city and along the railroad tracks. A notable site is the “Rabbit Hole” along McCarran Boulevard near the Truckee River in Sparks, where the crews collected 187 cubic yards of trash over two weeks.
“We look for people who want to work but who have forgotten their work ethic,” Denton said.
The workers receive Karma Box cash gift cards. It’s immediate gratification and a chance to see other places besides the shelter or street environments.
A successful journey out of homelessness and drug addiction requires a hybrid approach. The first step is housing. The next steps lead to a job, a life free of drugs, and self-sufficiency. Those steps require a lot of support, Denton said.
A new hybrid program, in partnership with the Veterans Guest House of Reno, is called Karma Krib by Denton, but is officially named Healthy Home by the Guest House. The house provides a home and wraparound services tailored to people who are just out of a shelter or a mod pod.
The brand-new program welcomed its first two occupants on Aug. 12, said Sylvia DuBeau, CEO of Veterans Guest House. “It’s a mom-and-pop atmosphere,” she said. Residents must clean up after themselves, fix their own meals if hungry, and make their own beds.
“What we find in the chronically homeless often are severe, adverse childhood experiences,” she said, and creating a homelike environment teaches responsibility and stability.
The pilot program is not a “forever home,” but a temporary step to becoming self-sufficient. Rent is not charged until the resident gains employment, and even then, the rent is lower than market price.
A new program next year will help men in centers for mental illness and drug treatment who have been excluded from normal life, Denton said.
Called GRIT for Grow, Refine, Integrate and Thrive, the program will transport participants weekly for 12 weeks to gymnasiums and wellness centers, recreation activities, nutrition classes and a day of volunteer work. Program partners include Life Changes Inc., Battle Born Housing Plus, Ridge House, Silver Summit, Redirect Athletics and Bristlecone Family Resources.
Getting involved: ways to help the homeless
What is needed in Karma Boxes: Summer — water, sunscreen, socks, sun hats. Winter — knit wool caps, gloves, socks, space blankets or light blankets rolled up to preserve space in the box. All seasons — one-use hygiene items like toothbrushes/small tubes of toothpaste (no large bottles or multi-item packs), tampons, nonperishable foods preferably in pop-top containers, individual snacks, bars and ramen. Break apart and package items individually. Not advised: money, books, mini-bottles of alcohol, large bottles or cans, packages of many pairs of socks (roll up each pair of socks to preserve space). Books belong in Little Free Library boxes rather than Karma Boxes.
How to help: Donate $20 Walmart gift cards as incentives for workforce development programs. Donations for temporary housing program, including bed linens, clothes and toiletries may be arranged through the Veterans Guest House, (775) 324-6958. Log onto the www.karmaboxproject.org website and leave a message for Grant Denton or send a message through the Facebook page. He will arrange for pickup. Monetary donations may be made at www.karmaboxproject.org. Small donations may be put into the boxes at anytime.
Karma Box locations
LuxPet Vet, 1135 Hunter Lake Drive
Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation, 50 Cowan Drive
Ridge House, 900 W. 1st St.
The Life Change Center, 130 Vine St.
Innovations High School, 777 W. 2nd Street, staff parking lot on Washington Street
Northern Nevada Hopes, 550 W. 5th Street
Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center, corner 6th and West streets
Honors Academy, 195 N. Arlington Avenue
City Plaza, 10 E. 1st St.
Pioneer Center, 100 S. Virginia St.
Public Defenders Office, 350 S. Center St.
Melting Pot, 1049 S. Virginia St.
Abbi Agency, 1385 Haskell St.
Caliber Hair, 141 E Pueblo St.
Sports West Athletic Club, 1575 S. Virginia St.
Maccabee Arms, 2105 Kietzke Lane
1300 Brinkby Street
Washoe County Building A, 1001 E. 9th St.
1771 Valley Road
Washoe County Sheriff, 911 E. Parr Boulevard
Care Chest, 7910 N. Virginia St.
The Village at Sage, 300 Sage St.
855 Mill Street
Urban Roots, 1700 E. 2nd St.
Sierra View Library, 4001 S. Virginia St.
Women and Children’s Center of the Sierra, 3905 Neil Road
Primrose School, 9410 Double Diamond Parkway
First United Methodist Church, 209 W First St.
Almost Home Day Care, 3345 Pyramid Way
Sparks Library, 1125 12th St. (opening soon)
Sparks Christian Fellowship, 510 Greenbrae Drive
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, 315 Westbrook Lane
Lemmon Valley Community Center, 325 Patrician Drive
11520 Overland Ave.
Stead and Cold Springs
North Valleys Community Center, 8085 Silver Lake Road, Stead
8137 Anchor Point Drive, Stead
11690 Brush Creek Court, Stead
Cold Springs Community Center, 3355 White Lake Parkway, Cold Springs
NOTE: Box locations can be closed on short notice, and the online map on Facebook or at www.karmaboxproject.org may not reflect closures.