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Reno’s Largest Homeless Encampment Dismantled: Home To 175 People

Several tents are being dismantled.
Stephanie Serrano
KUNR Public Radio
People were woken up by Reno police officers at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, March 4. Shortly after, people started packing in 30 degree weather. Some were resistant but eventually left.

137 tents that were turned into homes by people living on the streets of Reno were removed by law enforcement on Wednesday, March 4.

Editor's note: this story contains adult language. 

For the past several months, if you walked down 4th Street in downtown Reno, just a few blocks from the Record Street homeless shelter, you’d find the end of a road. Beyond a bed of rocks, over a railroad track, through a trench, then to a fence and into a narrow space a little more than a half a mile long and about 20-feet-wide, you would see where nearly 175 people made homes out of tents, tarps and blankets. 

Before yesterday's removal, a group of Reno police officers visited the location several times to spread the message and to try to connect individuals with local services.

Legally, law enforcement only needs to provide a 24-hour notice.

“The problem is, you'll have clean tents and you have dirty tents, with people going to the bathroom wherever they want to. That guy is burning trash over there. You can't have them pooping and peeing wherever they want to poop and pee,” Reno Police Officer Jett Utter said.

“If they weren't here, they would have been on the other side of the railroad tracks, or they would have been on the other side of the river, so it's just a migration of where they're at. I don’t know where they're going to go after this,” Utter said.

A container full of urine laying on the floor.
Credit Stephanie Serrano / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
One person said someone took her water gallon and peed in it. Scattered around the camp were several bottles full of urine.

The department partnered with three different organizations, Volunteers of America, the Community Health Alliance and Well Care to provide services, including open overnight beds for veterans.

Many refused the services.

The Washoe County Health District issued a notice to the city stating the camp violated regulations related to improper storage and disposal of waste.

Outside of the living spaces, bottles of caramel-colored pee and plastic bags full of human waste were scattered inches away. Piles of trash full of rotting food and unwanted belongings, like unwashed pans, shoes and clothes, were mountainous. 

A big trash can used to make fires stands in the middle of the ground surrounded by tents.
Credit Stephanie Serrano / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Several people were burning trash to keep warm. Some people living in the camp said they've had to save people's tents from going up in flames.

Police also said there was a fire hazard, because some people were lighting fires inside their tents to stay warm. It’s also dangerous for anyone to be that close to an active train track. 

But for many, this was their space, their home.

“We can't camp anywhere and every time we camp somewhere, we have to go. Look, are we on the street out here? Can anyone see us on the street that's a tourist? Can anyone that's a tourist actually see us? No,” Mama Bear said.

While living on the streets, she was given the name Mama Bear because of her natural care for others.

“These kids out here that I got, being Mama Bear, they put that love back into my heart where my own children don't even want anything to do with me,” Mama Bear said.

While some have a feeling of community, others are living in fear each day. Like Mary Lou, who travels by herself alongside her dog, Niki, who is her protector. 

“I hate it,” Mary said. “I have to always watch my back, all the time, always. One time I was sleeping in the dining room parking lot and I nearly got assaulted. Luckily, I woke up. That's the story of my life: being alone, being a female [and] being on the streets. It's not the experience that I want. I never give up. That's one thing, I never give up.”

Mary is originally from California and has been living in Reno since 2013. Her next-door neighbor at the camp was Hilario. He was born and raised in Reno and has been living on the streets since he was 16. He said the hardest part is being judged for his situation.

“The way people look at you, the way that they already profile you, they already assume that you're a piece of shit,” Hilario said. “At the end of the day, it's like, ‘who cares?’ I've learned to deal with that, even though I get a haircut and dress all nice, they still judge you.

Hilario works temp jobs but can’t afford to pay for housing. 

During yesterday's removal, he packed his belongings into a large backpack but didn’t leave right away. He stayed to help several others, including a man who had a walking impairment. 

Large items and trash sit at the side of a railroad track.
Credit Stephanie Serrano / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Once people started packing their most important personal items the morning of Wednesday, March 4, many left behind large items. The right side of the fence is city property, but the space with the railroad track belongs to the Union Pacific railroad agency.

On the other end of the encampment, a woman who goes by Mrs. Leeggs was also collecting her belongings in 30 degree weather.

She was headed to the Record Street shelter, but as of yesterday afternoon, the women’s facility only had three open beds and 11 overflow beds. The men's shelter was full. 

“All they're doing is shuffling us back and forth,” Mrs. Leeggs said. “[People living on the streets] are going to go back where they were, and then come back here again, and then go back over there. [The city] is not helping nothing.”

Over the next few days, the city will be cleaning the area and removing huge piles of the items left behind. 

Left over items and trash left behind by homeless people
Credit Stephanie Serrano / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
The City of Reno said it will take several days to clean up what was left behind. Their plan is to deep clean the location in sections.

Stephanie Serrano (she/her/ella) is an award-winning multimedia bilingual journalist based in Reno, Nevada. Her reporting is powered by character-driven stories and is rooted in sound-rich audio. Her storytelling works to share the experiences of unserved communities in regards to education, race, affordable housing and sports.
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