A group of advocates protested outside of Reno City Hall 24/7 for seven days straight, demanding the city stop the ongoing clearing of homeless encampments. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck reports on what has transpired.
On the corner of Reno City Plaza, J. W. Hoak is digging around in a blue cooler looking for a snack. Hoak was recently evicted in Yerington and has been in Reno for about a week. He said he joined the “Stop the Sweeps” demonstration after an organizer offered him a bottle of water.
“Very amiable, everybody’s generous, kind,” Hoak said.
In mid-May, the City of Reno ramped up what are called scheduled cleaning operations after the partial opening of a homeless shelter, the NEVADA Cares Campus. The city identified about a dozen locations along the Truckee River that have been deemed a health concern. City employees visit the areas often to offer access to services. Staff also provide notice, typically a week in advance, that people must leave the area by a certain date.
“A lot of them lose their only belongings that they need to survive, and they don’t know where to go. They’re traumatized; they can’t always advocate for themselves when they are going through a traumatic experience because of PTSD or other mental health issues,” Natalie Handler said.
Handler spent multiple days at the demonstration, starting conversations with passersby and introducing them to the group’s petition. Some of the demands include a complete stop to the sweeps until the new shelter is fully operational with wraparound services.
The past week provided demonstrators a small glimpse into what it’s like to sleep outside. Local farmer Meagan O’Farrell spoke about the mental and physical toll.
“I had one night to sleep in my bed after being down here for four days straight, and like, the amount of intensity on your body and your mental stamina to exist in this space, because there’s no privacy, there’s constant engagement all the time,” O’Farrell said.
About a four-minute drive from Reno City Plaza, houseless individuals staying at John Champion Park along the Truckee River were leaving the area due to a scheduled cleaning operation.
One woman struggled to pull a wagon with all of her belongings. Blankets, pillows and clothes were stacked on top of one another and spilled over the sides.
“It’s kind of like moving out of your house every day because you’re taking everything with you,” Rachel said.
Rachel has experienced homelessness on and off for more than 10 years. She’s spent the last year in Reno and said surviving the winter was especially difficult. She said it can be really challenging to pull one’s self out of homelessness without help.
“I’ve just had to keep my spirits up and just forget about everything and try to go on without having to look weak, or feel abandoned, or feel homeless. It’s been real hard,” Rachel said.
Rachel said she’d be interested in staying at a safe camp. This would essentially be a designated piece of property where people can sleep outdoors and have access to amenities. A safe camp is scheduled to open at the Nevada CARES Campus by June 17. There will be 44 tents provided to start with.
Advocates argue the city should stop the clearing of encampments until there are shelter options that fit everyone’s needs. But City Spokesperson Jon Humbert said the encampments are raising environmental, safety and public health concerns.
“The ability for us to stop these cleanups is very limited,” Humbert said.
He added that people are given ample notice and access to services. From January to May, the Clean and Safe Team made contact with about 800 unsheltered individuals. About half of them accepted services such as obtaining an ID, medical referral and housing options. There was also an increase in people staying at the new shelter. On the first night, nearly 240 people slept there. Now, it’s common for more than 550 to stay there per night.
“Our crews on the Clean and Safe Team and our outreach folks go out, daily, to these different areas and have that conversation with folks, talking to them about services, and simply making a personal connection to say, ‘Hey, I’m someone who cares about you and wants to help you,’” Humbert said.
Along with protesting, many community members spoke out about the city’s cleaning operations during this week’s Reno City Council meeting. But not everyone was opposed.
Alex Stettinski is the executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership, which is a 120-block business improvement district.
“When we talk to businesses in our district, the vast majority is supporting what you guys are doing. The vast majority is also concerned; they want to make sure that the enforcement is done with care, is done with respect, and is done with dignity to the individuals that are affected by it,” Stettinski said.
Public comment continued for more than two hours. A majority opposed the city’s operations, calling them inhumane. O’Farrell said the clean-up operations force people to start from scratch.
“These sweeps continuously encourage people to have to start over every single time,” O’Farrell said.
The demonstrators have packed up their tents and cardboard protest signs, but they say the fight isn’t over yet. They’re hoping to meet with the mayor later Thursday to discuss potential solutions.