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Criminal penalties put unhoused people at risk, former law enforcement officials say

Two sheriff’s deputies enter a white pickup truck.
Bert Johnson
KUNR Public Radio
Members of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) Team on patrol in South Reno, Nev., on March 20, 2024.

The warning comes as officials toughen restrictions on public camping in Washoe County.

Since the start of the year, elected officials in the Truckee Meadows have adopted criminal penalties for sleeping in cars, camping on some public lands, and other activities associated with homelessness.

Officials say such measures are aimed at reducing the region’s population of visibly unhoused people. And in each case, local law enforcement agencies have supported the new ordinances.

But a national group of former law enforcement officials argues that directing police to respond to homelessness puts unhoused people at risk, diverts government resources, and is counterproductive to alleviating the crisis.

On Wednesday, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership cosigned a friend-of-the-court brief in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could affect new policies in the Truckee Meadows.

“Criminalizing homelessness and enlisting the police to address it will result in more encounters between police and civilians, with a population of civilians far more likely to die during those encounters,” the filing read.

For the time being, Washoe County and other state and local governments in the West are blocked from clearing homeless encampments if there are no shelter beds available. That’s because in 2018, a panel of judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the practice was cruel and unusual punishment.

But a new case before the Supreme Court seeks to overturn those protections.

Depending on how Justices rule, public officials could be allowed to clear encampments any time they choose – or, as advocates for unhoused peoples’ rights point out, bans on public camping could be nullified.

That would be a sharp rebuke for Washoe County, where commissioners adopted new prohibitions on camping within 1,000 feet of the Truckee River, sleeping on sidewalks, and making fires on public property in March.

The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office drafted the camping ban and presented it to commissioners, who adopted it in March. Their vote was the final step in a yearslong process.

“The idea behind this ordinance came out of the [Community Homelessness Advisory Board], back in about 2019,” Sheriff Darin Balaam told KUNR.

According to Balaam, the board asked his department to create an ordinance based on similar policies in Reno and Sparks, so that unhoused people displaced from those communities wouldn’t end up camping on county land.

Advocates and unhoused people say the measure criminalizes poverty.

But Sparks city councilman Kristopher Dahir, who also serves on the advisory board, defended the ban. He explained that at the time, trash buildup from encampments along the Truckee River was getting out of control.

“We had to step up and say, ‘We cannot let this go down this road. This is not good for anybody involved,’” he said.

So Dahir and the rest of the board, which includes officials from Reno, Sparks, and the county, drafted regional plans to deal with the homelessness crisis. The number of people experiencing homelessness has grown in recent years, as housing prices have gone up and low-cost weekly motels have been torn down.

But Doug Sobolik, who’s been living on the streets of Reno for the last eight years, said the camping bans will just push unhoused people onto private property, where law enforcement officers can’t respond until they’re called on by property owners.

“It’s not practical,” he said. “It’s also not practical to continue to spread them all over the community in the public domain, either.”

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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