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Washoe County commissioners approve camping ban

A group of people standing in a room. One woman is in focus and looking on.
Bert Johnson
KUNR Public Radio
Paula Pennington (left), with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Reno, prays with other volunteers as they prepare to distribute food and supplies to unhoused people on March 19, 2024.

Law enforcement officials say the measure will help get unhoused people into services. But opponents worry it will victimize a vulnerable population.

Editor’s note: This story contains strong language. 

It’s now illegal to camp, sleep in a car, park an R.V., or make a campfire on some public lands in Washoe County. Violations could result in a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Doug Sobolik, who said he’s been living on the streets of Reno for the last eight years, is afraid the new ordinance will turn people like him into criminals.

“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let these people beat me down with bulls*** laws,” he said. “I have a right to exist.”

But according to Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam, whose office put the ordinance before the Board of County Commissioners, that’s not the intent behind the new restrictions.

“We’re not going to arrest that person who’s living in their car; we’re going to try and get them off the street and get them in a safe place,” he said.

Balaam said the camping ban was needed because similar policies in Reno and Sparks were pushing unhoused people away from services. His office plans to use the ordinance to direct them back to resources in the urban core, such as the county-run Nevada Cares Campus.

But advocates argued that criminal penalties aren’t a solution for homelessness.

“If the county, or if the city provided trash barrels for them, or porta-potties, or even the outdoor showers, that would really make it a lot better,” said Paula Pennington.

Pennington volunteers with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Reno chapter. A week before the camping ban passed, she met with other members at a local church to load food and other supplies they would deliver to around 75 unhoused people as part of a weekly program.

Pennington is concerned by the scorn she sees in the community.

“I was looking on [Nextdoor.com], and that’s all they’re talking about,” she said. “They just hate them.”

Father Chuck Durante, who leads the Nevada Interfaith Association, also opposes the camping ban. He believes it’s wrong to punish people for trying to survive.

Over the last few years, Durante has seen more and more people forced to sleep outside as housing prices continue to rise, and affordable housing stock fails to keep pace with demand.

“To arrest them, because they’re sleeping in their car – if they’re fortunate enough to even have one – or sleeping on the street is, in essence, criminalizing poverty,” he said.

But Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Craig Turner said if he were to arrest everyone who violated the new ordinance, it would damage the relationships he’s been building with unhoused people for the last two years.

“A lot of these people are eligible to be arrested right now. It’s just not what we do,” he explained.

Turner is a member of the Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) Team. They’re tasked with getting people off the streets.

On a sunny day in March, Turner was visiting a collection of tents along the Truckee River on the outskirts of town. He stopped to introduce himself to a man he hadn’t met before, who spoke to Turner from inside his tent.

“Do you have any barriers that would prevent you to get into housing?” Turner asked. “Ex-felon, or anything like that? We don’t care – we just, it sometimes makes it easier [to identify] which places to look for.”

The HOPE Team spends a lot of time responding to calls about trash, abandoned vehicles, and fires at homeless encampments. But Turner sometimes feels more like a social worker with a gun.

In the long term, Balaam said Washoe County needs to find a way to address its housing crunch.

“You need a really good-paying job to afford anything, and so it’s making it difficult, no matter who you are,” he said.

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that could overturn legal protections for unhoused people. They’ll review a lower court ruling that’s blocked local governments in Western states from clearing out encampments, unless there are adequate shelter beds available.

But Chasity Martinez with Faith in Action Nevada said it could also go the other way – she pointed out the Justices could decide camping bans violate the U.S. Constitution.

“We’re hoping that this could be overturned,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sobolik wishes there were more empathy toward unhoused people.

“If you don’t understand, just pack it up, grab yourself a backpack, and come outside for one week,” he said.

Sobolik wanted to remind county commissioners that people like him are still human beings. They’ve just slipped through the cracks – and they need leaders to support them, instead of displacing them with camping bans.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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