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Cleaning Up After A Homeless Camp Is Dismantled

Piles of trash stacked up next to a railroad.
Stephanie Serrano
Many people cut through the fence to set up camp next to the railroad. Inside the fence is City of Reno property, but the railroad is Union Pacific property. As people were removed on March 4, 2020, some of their belongings and piles of trash were left.

The City of Reno dismantled an encampment that was home to nearly 175 people after a health violation was issued by the Washoe County Health District. Many people were removed with only their most valuable possessions. Today we hear from the man who leads the River Cleanup Crew, which had to organize a clean-up of 400 yards of leftover belongings and trash in three days. 

The River

A man who goes by the name River John moved to Reno five years ago from California. He was once retired and took daily walks alongside the river on a path in Idlewild Park. On his walks, he started to notice a common item: trash.

“The river is a beautiful thing and I’m going, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ " John said. “I started picking up the trash myself, and then one day, I walked into the yard at Idlewild and I said, ‘What’s with the trash and things? You have a really nice place here,' and they go, ‘Well, we’re hiring someone to help clean up the river on a grant.' ” 

John was handed an application and found himself a new job.

Five Years Later

John started working with the city. He was paired up with a law enforcement officer, tackling small jobs here and there, but now he finds himself working with several police officers and cleaning up homeless encampments. On March 4, the city dismantled a camp made up of 137 tents. The location was about a half a mile long and 20 feet wide, next to an active railroad off 4th Street in downtown Reno.

Legally, law enforcement only has to give people a 24-hour notice before removing them from city property, but this time around, the city gave them one week’s notice.

John said he is seeing how much Reno is changing firsthand.

“I have to have an officer with me at all times when I’m out on field,” John said. “More and more people have arrived and there are more and more challenges. Just the total sheer number of them, and yet there is no place to put them, and we just move them from one place to another.”

During clean up days, John and a police officer knock on tents one-by-one to talk to each individual. John asks everyone to separate the belongings they will take with them from the items they don’t want.

He does this several times prior to the clean up time. John calls this process an agreement between the two.

Before John was promoted into his new position, he was physically picking up the garbage at different sites. Now, he works with different city clean up crews. John said he’s picked up close to 10,000 hypodermic needles in the past four years.

“We see fecal matter, we see needles, we see empty garbage, we see terrible rags, we see things that people just leave as trash right in their tents and next to their tents,” John said. “We then have to decide if it's theirs or if it's trash.” 

The Heartache

During the March 4 cleanup, John noticed a man in his early twenties packing up his belongings and tent. He immediately asked him how he ended up in his situation and gave him information about a part-time job opportunity to be on John’s River Clean Up team.

That young man’s name is Hilario. After the conversation with John he stayed to help several others who needed help packing because they were physically impaired.

John said this job comes with an emotional toll because it's hard to see people struggle.

“It’s an emotional thing,” John said. “I don’t see how anyone can take any satisfaction out of doing this, other than trying to make the community a little bit better for everybody else. I'm usually pretty tired by the time I go home, mentally. You want to treat people with respect, but you still have to get the job done.”

Caption: Move the dial to see the homeless encampment before and after. The photo on the left was taken on March 4, 2020, a day before the removal of the camp where 137 tents were standing. The photo on the right shows the last items left on the property days after the removal.

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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