Hundreds Of Houseless Individuals Uprooted During Pandemic

Jun 4, 2020

Houseless individuals are more at risk of contracting COVID-19, and this week, authorities in Reno and Sparks swept through and cleared out two different campsites, dispersing unsheltered individuals into the community.

The Mountain West News Bureau’s Noah Glick checked in with KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck, who covered these cleanup activities for our media partner This Is Reno, to learn what impacts these actions may have.

Noah Glick: Let's start at the beginning. What's going on here and what happened this week?

Lucia Starbuck: On Tuesday, authorities with the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) conducted a removal of a camp near the Boys and Girls Club in Sparks. NDOT told me it received several complaints about potential exposure to trash and hazardous materials, and that could pose a health risk. I talked to Levi Whitehead, who was living in this camp for a little over a month. He said being relocated by these cleanup activities is nothing new to him.

Levi Whitehead, dressed in black, had to relocate from a small camp that was cleaned and cleared out by the Nevada Department of Transportation in Sparks, Nev. on Tuesday, June 2.
Credit Eric Marks / This Is Reno

"It's really annoying. I wish they would just find a spot for us to park it," Whitehead said.

Starbuck: Now, he needs to figure out where to go and where to sleep, and that can be really hard. A lot of houseless folks, they rely on these camps.

Glick: There was a second sweep [Wednesday] of a larger camp in Reno. Can you just explain what happened there?

Starbuck: The City of Reno conducted a cleanup of a camp underneath the Wells Avenue overpass. I can't say how many people lived there, but I'm being told it was in the hundreds.

Glick: It's in the hundreds? Do you have a sense of where these folks are going to go now?

Starbuck: There are some shelter beds in town, but a lot of folks I talk to, they really don't want to stay in a shelter. Some have pets, some are in couples, and some, they just don't trust authorities. Frankly, this was just another stressful situation for these individuals. They have to pack up everything, all of their belongings, and sometimes they have to do it really quickly. One person I talked to, Stephen Frazier, he said he felt rushed by Reno Police Department officers, and he had to leave some stuff behind that was special to him.

Stephen Frazier was in a nearby park after being displaced from the camp he was living at, which was cleared out by the City of Reno in Reno, Nev. on Wednesday, June 3. He said he was not able to grab all of his belongings, including his son’s first comic book.
Credit Isaac Hoops / This Is Reno

“I left a lot of stuff, stuff that came from my family. Things that was given to me by my family. It’s not stuff that would be like value to anybody else, but it was invaluable to me, and I had to leave it,” Frazier said.

Starbuck: I think I should mention a lot of people at this camp, they were part of a larger camp, which was cleaned up back in March, and now they're trying to figure out where to go, again.

Glick: But removing these camps, that poses other challenges, right? I mean, is there a risk of spreading COVID-19 by doing this?

Starbuck: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that displacing houseless individuals from these camps during a pandemic should really be avoided because that can cause people to potentially spread the virus throughout the community. Holly Welborn is the policy director for the Nevada ACLU. I saw her at the camp in the morning, and she shared some of her concerns with me.

Holly Welborn is the policy director for the Nevada ACLU and monitored a cleanup of a camp where hundreds of houseless individuals were living in Reno, Nev. on Wednesday, June 3.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / This Is Reno

"My observations of this camp is that there seem to be subcamps within it that have far fewer than 10 people in them. The camp here has a total of about 270 people when it's full, but they're dispersed and spread out. So those are better conditions for individuals to be able to space out and follow those social distancing guidelines," Welborn said.

Glick: So what's next? What options are there for houseless people in our community?

Starbuck: There is the Reno Events Center, and that has beds, but it will close in mid-June. There are some options for people to go when it does close, but there's a lot of nuance and uncertainty right now, especially with the pandemic and the recent protests. I'm going to be following this, and I'll provide updates as I get more information.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

This story was produced in partnership with This Is Reno.