Reno's Empowerment Center Supports Recovery

The Empowerment Center in Reno, Nevada, provides a recovery-oriented system of care within a sober living facility for adult men and women.

Reno, Nevada, is the other Sin City—it has casinos, bordellos, and shady transient motels. It also has a lot of caring people who understand that sometimes appetite gets the best of folks and they need a better idea.

Sandy Finelli, executive director of the Empowerment Center, describes the organization's first steps.

“We decided to buy our own property for the Center and put together $7,000 for the Ranch Motel on South Virginia Street in Reno. We thought we were rich, but the broker thought we were insane because we were way off—just not enough money! But it was in bad shape and they had a meth lab in the back.” Connections in Reno, and knowing that having a program to care for people who used opioids, hallucinogenic drugs, and methamphetamines in that location was a much better idea than the status quo, helped Finelli’s partners put together the deal for the organization.

“We renovated the property, raised $1.3 million, and we are now debt free.” Men and women in recovery run the Center, with 98% of them as volunteers. They receive no state funding and operate solely on private donations, including a generous donation from Atlantis Casino. “Once you get past the bells and whistles, Reno is a caring community,” Finelli said.

The Empowerment Center has grown into a 34-bed facility providing a recovery-oriented system of care within a sober living facility for adult men and women on the road to becoming successful, self-sufficient, and productive. The organization is the first licensed halfway house, as defined by the state of Nevada, in northern Nevada. Empowerment Center clients can stay at the center for up to two years, though the average is 90 days. A great majority—98%—of clients have experienced homelessness when they come to the center. The program now has three AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers on staff to help with employment coaching. With support from the volunteers, 76% of clients obtain employment within 30 days.

More than Just a Place to Stay

It doesn’t stop there. Clients are given financial coaching to learn how to be sensible with their paycheck and learn about opening a bank account and managing their money in budgeting class. They are, in fact, required to pay 68% of the cost of their stay at the Empowerment Center. And Finelli says they relearn how to act in public, now that the streets don’t have them in their grip.

Finelli told the story of Heather, who, when she showed up on the doorstep of the Empowerment Center, hadn’t had a bath, and she said she needed to talk. “She was working as a streetwalker and strung out. She was honest - she said she did not have the ability to stop doing what she was doing if she did not have a warm place to stay. She spoke of her toddler son, whom she had lost custody of to her own mother and whom she was no longer allowed to see. She kept looking at the kitchen until someone asked her if she was hungry, and she devoured a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. Heather did not commit to the Center that day, but she did come back to eat, shower, and talk some more. She came in one day after not eating for three days and asked if she could stay.”

Heather ended up staying for eight months. She went to school, got a GED, worked on the office computer, and ended up getting a job as a receptionist at $9 per hour. “One day, an older woman walked in with a young child and asked for Heather. From then on, Heather’s mother came every Saturday, and eventually opened her home to her daughter, who moved back in. Her mother now supports her recovery, and when you see Heather with her son, you can see he just adores her.”

“Sometimes it is enough to save one life,” Finelli said.

This article was originally published to highlight the September 2014 theme of Recovery. Learn about SAMHSA's efforts in recovery support. September is National Recovery Month.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Publication Year

Brian Prioleau
Last Updated: 04/19/2016