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Housing prices are rising rapidly across the Mountain West, especially in resort towns, and that’s making it difficult for many residents to buy a home or rent an apartment. In this ongoing series, the Mountain West News Bureau is examining the problem — and potential solutions — across the region.

Nevada, Colorado experiment with sanctioned camping to address homelessness

Four green and black camping tents are lined up on top of asphalt outside. There are old baseball stadium bleachers in the background.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Tents with cots inside for Washoe County’s Safe Camp pilot program in Reno, Nev., on June 18, 2021. The program provides a place for people experiencing homelessness to camp outside safely with access to restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

Homelessness is a growing problem in Western cities. Some communities are setting up their own encampments.

Walls, floors, doors and other parts are being assembled east of downtown Reno. This is the site where Washoe County set up its campsite.

Steven Sanchez has stayed in a county-provided tent for about two months. Before that, he was sleeping in a tent along railroad tracks.

“When you’re outside, you’re exposed to everything; everything can get you, anybody, or the weather, or whatever, you know,” Sanchez said.

Now, he’s looking forward to moving into one of the new structures. They’re called ModPods, and they’ll replace the tents. They measure eight feet by eight feet and include a cot, heating and cooling, and a door that locks. They cost nearly $14,000 each, and there will be about 50.

“These pods I’ve been hearing about, you know, that’s what’s really got us interested, because, like, are you kidding me? A room of our own, with walls and electricity?” Sanchez said.

Washoe County started its Safe Camp in Reno last June. It’s in an industrial area, near a highway interchange. Assistant County Manager Kate Thomas said it’s an alternative to the county’s shelter, where nearly 600 people sleep.

Kate Thomas is a woman, and she is standing while holding a folder of papers and looking toward the camera. There is a row of ModPods behind her.
Courtesy of Washoe County
Washoe County Assistant Manager Kate Thomas is in front of the county’s ModPods in Reno, Nev., on Feb. 16, 2022. The structures replaced the county-provided tents for its Safe Camp pilot program.

The shelter and campsite also offer food, restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. There’s a space for pets as well.

“These are individuals who have been out in the weather, for some of them, decades. We’ve removed some of the barriers that make it difficult for them on a day-to-day basis out in the elements,” Thomas said.

But it’s not just the heat or cold. A few months after the tent program opened, county residents were advised to stay indoors because the air quality was deemed hazardous due to wildfires in California.

“We offered space in that large emergency shelter. We set it aside [as] sort of its own area, [but] people didn’t want to go; they just want to be in their own space,” Thomas said.

A selfie of Cuica Montoya. There are flakes of snow on her. The ground and ice fishing shelters behind her are covered in snow.
Courtesy of Cuica Montoya
Cuica Montoya, the program director of the Colorado Village Collaborative’s Safe Outdoor Spaces, at one of the sanctioned camp sites near the Denver Health medical campus, on Feb. 16, 2022. This site prioritizes Native American inclusivity.

Some West Coast cities have experimented with sanctioned encampments for years. It’s a growing phenomenon in our region, as more and more people struggle with homelessness. In the Mountain West, there are sanctioned camps in places like Missoula, Montana, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

In Denver, the Colorado Village Collaborative operates three Safe Outdoor Space programs. Together, they have room for 150 people, but a survey last year found more than 5,500 people in shelters in the metro area, and advocates say the count is likely higher.

“We do believe that housing is the solution to end homelessness, but we also know we’re never going to be able to build, right now, to meet the demand that’s out there, so, until then, what do we do?” said Cuica Montoya, the program director of Safe Outdoor Spaces.

The Denver-based nonprofit provides ice fishing shelters, zero-degree sleeping bags and heated blankets.

“We set it up during [the] COVID pandemic as a response to stay-at-home orders. How are our unhoused folks going to stay at home if they don’t have a home?” Montoya asked.

An aerial photo of roughly 56 ice fishing shelters in parking spots. Next to the parking lot is a large grassy field with bleachers. In the background, there are large brick buildings, trees, and the Rocky Mountains.
Courtesy of Skip Stewart
Colorado Village Collaborative has operated a Safe Outdoor Space in a parking lot with a coded-gate entry at Regis University in Denver since June 2021. Residents are served food and have access to restroom and laundry facilities.

Donald Whitehead is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. He said sanctioned camps aren’t the answer, especially in winter.

“We need to produce housing; we need to create jobs that pay affordable wages. Those are the long-term solutions and the structural changes that we need. Solutions like encampments are a way for communities to, kind of, get an easy pass,” Whitehead said.

People in Washoe County’s program must agree to seek permanent housing. So far, nearly 60% have, but subsidized housing programs have long wait lists. And in Reno and Denver, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $1,900, according to Rent.com, so getting to the next step can be difficult.

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

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning political journalist and the host of KUNR’s monthly show Purple Politics Nevada. She is passionate about reporting during election season, attending community events, and talking to people about the issues that matter most to them.
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