Nevada, Colorado experiment with sanctioned camping to address homelessness
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.