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How are Washoe County and mutual aid groups supporting unhoused individuals during extreme weather?

On a cold Tuesday evening, Lee Bowers stood in line in front of the “Believe” sign in downtown Reno, waiting for his turn to receive some warm food and supplies from Family Soup Mutual Aid. Standing by his side, Love Guru, a medium-sized, brindle dog, waited excitedly in his red felt dog jacket.

One of the worst storms of the season had just blown through the area the previous weekend, dumping snow and rain on the region. Bowers said it was especially hard to stay warm and dry because his blankets and supplies were taken.

“I’m cold all the time. It’s just, you get used to it. You just gotta go wherever they don’t find you. But eventually they do,” Bowers said.

He said he is always on the lookout for city officials who he has had trouble with, and who he said confiscated his belongings in the past.

Bowers survived the frigid days and nights by finding dry, covered places, such as a church alcove, to stay warm in.

“We don’t have a place to go warm up. We’re all a little dirty and sickly looking because we pretty much are. [And] you take away our shelters!” Bowers said. “Who am I hurting by being out here? Nobody.”

Leading up to the storm and during the worst days of it, volunteers from Family Soup Mutual Aid were out on the streets assessing the needs of people. Lily Baran, an activist and volunteer, said she was out checking in on her neighbors.

“I was out a couple of times a day including all day of the storm. It looks like the way that people have interpreted the recent ordinances [is] that if they don’t have a tent, then they are less likely to be disturbed,” Baran said.

Baran is referring to an anti-camping ordinance the city of Sparks recently passed that bans people from living in oversized vehicles on public property. A similar ban was also considered in Washoe County by the board of commissioners and passed on March 26, banning camping on county-owned property or public areas within 1,000 feet of the Truckee River. Violations of this ordinance can lead to a misdemeanor offense.

“Right now, I’m seeing women, disabled people and seniors, most specifically, and in the most abundance who are sleeping outside completely unsheltered, meaning they don’t even have a tent,” Baran said.

Baran said she was digging people out from underneath a foot of snow to give them things like warm soup and hand warmers.

Community-led mutual aid groups like Family Soup are not the only ones working to help the unhoused community, though.

Bethany Drysdale, the communications manager for Washoe County, said that the Nevada Cares Campus is here to be of service to the community.

“The Cares Campus is about 15 acres. And so we have the big emergency shelter that houses just under 600 people in that shelter. And then also on site is the resource center, the overflow shelter and the safe camp,” Drysdale said.

The overflow shelter has 84 additional beds and opened along with the resource center in December, Drysdale said.

“Reno has fairly inhospitable winters and we know that. So we certainly see an increase in people seeking services during the winter, especially coming into major storms like we just saw here in our area,” Drysdale said.

People may come in to escape the elements, but will also find resources to support them, including services like job training and welfare, Drysdale said. She hopes with this support people can get back on their feet.

“People ask about warming centers. We don’t have a warming center, we have a year-round resource center where it doesn’t matter what's going on outside, we can provide resources,” Drysdale said.

Although the Cares Campus has been proposed as the county’s response to homelessness, critics say it is too far away from the city center. It is located on East 4th Street, about a mile and a half away from where Family Soup Mutual Aid distributes food.

Several of the unhoused individuals at the food distribution also cited concerns about safety and theft at the site.

Back at City Plaza, Bowers sat with Love Guru and warmed his hands over a flaming pile of hand sanitizer that someone lit. He laid out some of the reasons why he chooses this over a bed at Cares.

“Who wants to throw everything they own away just to go to the shelter? We already have so little. But yet, we can’t take our clothes in there. We can’t take any blankets or memorabilia from previous times,” Bowers said.

The Cares Campus does allow people to bring personal items, but there are some restrictions, including size.

Nearby, Baran and the Family Soup Mutual Aid crew packed up as the street lights turned on. Baran shared similar sentiments to Bowers.

“People saying Cares is an option isn’t enough of an option,” Baran said. “It’s important that you meet people where they’re at. Meeting people where they’re at means meeting people where they’re at, not telling them to leave where they’re at and then they’ll help you.”

Kat Fulwider is a student reporter for KUNR and the Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science, which is part of the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Kat Fulwider is an award-winning documentary photographer and journalism student attending the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR. She is a fall 2023 student reporter at KUNR Public Radio and the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science.
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