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Why Is Reno Clearing Homeless Camps?

A row of signs leaning against a concrete ledge. The signs read, “End the sweeps,” “Housing now,” “Housing first,” and “Need for housing won’t fix itself!”
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Community members gather for an ongoing demonstration at Reno City Plaza, calling for an end to the clearing of homeless encampments on June 7, 2021.

The City of Reno has ramped up the clearing of homeless encampments over the last month. KUNR Morning Edition host Noah Glick checks in with reporter Lucia Starbuck to learn more.

Noah Glick: So, what exactly is the city doing?

Lucia Starbuck: The city has what they call a Clean and Safe team. Those staff members identify locations, typically along the Truckee River, that have environmental, safety and public health concerns. And there are usually people experiencing homelessness, living and camping in these areas. The city provides notice that these folks must leave, and the city comes by and offers access to services. After people leave with what they can carry, the city comes in and throws away what’s been left behind.

Glick: Why the recent ramp-up? Haven’t these encampments been around for years?

Starbuck: There’s been a big push to move people from these camps to the new homeless shelter, the Nevada CARES Campus. I spoke to James Henderson, who began staying at the shelter because he lost most of his belongings after the city cleared the area he was staying at.

James Henderson: I waited until the last minute to move. I got the days mixed up on when they were coming. Really, it was a blessing to me because I didn’t have no option but to go to the shelter because I didn’t have no tent, no bed, no covers, and which was my own fault.

Officials also say there are a number of safety concerns throughout the camps. The Reno Fire Department has responded to more than 350 fires along the Truckee River Corridor over the last year. And there have also been situations of violence amongst people camping in these areas. I asked Washoe County Assistant Manager Kate Thomas, you know, “Why not make the existing camps safer?” Here’s what she told me.

Kate Thomas: So the existing encampments are in areas that aren’t safe. They’re on steep river edges where it’s prone to flooding. They are in walkways where, you know, people are riding on the river path.

Glick: A week or so ago, there was a protest in Downtown Reno calling for an end to the clearing of homeless encampments. How did that go?

Starbuck: A group of community members pitched tents and took turns sleeping on the corner of Reno City Plaza for a 24/7, weeklong protest. They were actually given notice, similar to the piece of paper that’s handed to unsheltered individuals, that they must leave the area. Some demonstrators were also cited for being in the park after hours — which brought up a bunch of questions about the First Amendment. But the group’s main call for action was to put an end to the clearing of homeless camps until there are adequate housing options that meet everyone’s needs.

A person’s hands are holding up a piece of paper that says the date and time the notice was given, and a date and time people must leave. There is also a map of where to find a shelter in Reno and a list of housing and health care services.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Community members gathered for an ongoing demonstration at Reno City Plaza, calling to end the clearing of homeless camps, but protesters were given notice that they must leave the area, like this paper left on a demonstrator’s tent on June 8, 2021.

Glick: What happened? I know at one point organizers were hoping to meet with the mayor.

Starbuck: Advocates actually met with the mayor, and several other city officials, and had the chance to present their concerns about how the sweeps cause chaos, distress and confusion. They also talked about more opportunities to allow people to camp safely. The city called the meeting productive, and they said that they’ll continue to work with homeless advocates. I don’t think there was, like, this immediate action taken, but I do think it was a good first step. City officials have told me that they have really limited capacity to completely stop these scheduled cleaning operations and that they’ll continue to go out and do outreach. The city actually cleared a park while the “Stop the Sweeps” demonstration was going on last week.

A row of green and black camping tents set up along a gravel path with a fence behind them. Behind the fence in the background are baseball bleachers.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Tents with cots inside for Washoe County’s safe camp pilot program on June 18, which provides a place for people experiencing homelessness to camp outside safely with access to restrooms, 24-hour security and caseworkers. The county will provide 44 tents.

Glick: So, it sounds like the city is trying to use these sweeps to sort of direct more people to the shelter. But one issue that seems to consistently plague the area is the lack of available beds. What are officials doing to help people access the shelter?

Starbuck: Right now, there’s kind of this patchwork of emergency shelter options run by the county, the city, local organizations and nonprofits. The Nevada CARES Campus has up to 700 beds available. You have the Our Place shelter in Sparks for women and families. Washoe County just started a pilot program allowing people to camp outside safely on the same property as the Nevada CARES Campus. But these are temporary solutions. The ultimate goal is to help people transition into more permanent housing. But one issue I’ve seen come up, again and again, is there aren’t enough affordable housing options in our region for everyone to transition into. Officials are getting people into emergency shelter, but the question is, where can folks go from there?

Information on housing and shelter resources in Washoe County can be found here and in Reno here. Information on rental assistance in Nevada can be found here.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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