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Reno's Houseless Are Grappling With Pandemic

A row of different shaped and colored tents along a fence with tall casinos in the background.
Lucia Starbuck
Our Town Reno
Under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order to close nonessential businesses due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the City of Reno suspended cleanups of homeless encampments.";

Friday, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board will decide if ex-military barracks in Stead can be used as emergency housing for the houseless during the COVID-19 pandemic. KUNR’s Stephanie Serrano and Lucia Starbuck discussed how people without stable shelter are feeling, and what's being done to protect this vulnerable population.

Update at 10:55 pm on Friday, March 27: On Friday, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board approved using ex-military barracks located in Stead for emergency housing. The board must next discuss the details of how that operation will work. There is no timeline for when the barracks will be available.

Serrano: How vulnerable is this population to the novel coronavirus?

Starbuck: A lot of folks who are sleeping outside have existing, underlying health conditions and a lot of Reno's homeless population is also over the age of 65. A lot of our unsheltered population are in that high-risk group.

Additionally, people without stable shelter don't have the luxury to stay inside and isolate themselves if they are sick so there's no way to stop the spread of the virus, and recovery while living outside can be difficult. This population also doesn't always have access to the Internet. They're often relying on word of mouth, so they don't have the accurate information all the time.

Serrano: Lucia, you also report for Our Town Reno, where you interview people impacted by the affordable housing crisis. What have you been hearing from those individuals during this pandemic?

Starbuck: We're seeing the pandemic affect the existing resources for our unsheltered population. With the three shelters that are on Record Street, that campus is now closed during the day, so we're just seeing fewer and fewer places for houseless individuals to just exist during the day.

I think one of the biggest impacts is the closing of the Washoe County Downtown Reno Library. This used to be a safe place for people living on the streets to take a seat, relax, charge their electronics, access the Internet, get warm [and] things like that. I also want to mention, if folks are in recovery for a substance use disorder or receiving mental health care, we know some drop-in centers and clinics are now closed, so it can be really difficult to continue treatment.

Serrano: What resources are out there right now?

Starbuck: For food, St. Vincent's Dining Room on Record Street is passing out to-go boxes during lunchtime. Homeless advocacy groups are still hosting volunteer-led meals at dinnertime every day. Even though the Record Street campus is closed, staff are allowing people to take showers and check their mail.

We have also seen portable restrooms and hand sanitizers being deployed throughout parks and houseless encampments in Reno. More restrooms and handwashing stations are on their way, but there isn't a clear timeline of when those will come.

A map of public restrooms available put together by the Downtown Reno Partnership in partnership with Reno Type.

Serrano: The City of Reno converted the Reno Events Center into a makeshift shelter and you were there the first night. What was that like?

A crowded line of people in front of a building.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / Our Town Reno
Our Town Reno
People lined up outside of the Reno Events Center on the first night it opened as a shelter on March 21, 2020.

Starbuck: That night was really intense. There were about 400 people bunched up along one wall of the events center. People were confused, cold and upset.

In regards to the shelter, there are a little less than 400 beds and those are spaced six feet apart. These were taken from the existing shelters from Record Street. so it didn't really increase the supply of beds.

Some basic rules: people are allowed in at 8 p.m. and must leave by 8 a.m., one bag per person, only service animals are allowed and no weapons, drugs or alcohol are allowed.

I did talk to City Councilmember Devon Reese about why a shelter was created in the Reno Events Center. He told me that the Community Assistance Center, or CAC, which is where the Record Street shelters are located, are at their limits.

"It became very apparent, especially to the CAC, and the residents there, and their employees quite frankly, that all of the social distancing that they were hearing about on the news and seeing in practice, but not be practically carried out in the CAC where they have, you know, a very high density of people in a very small building," Reese said.

Starbuck: People are also being assessed for coronavirus at entry. If they do feel sick or have a high temperature, they are being directed back to the Record St. campus for a bed.

Rules of the Reno Events Center shelter explained on the first night it opened on March 21, 2020.

Serrano: So, they're directing people back to the Record Street shelters. What exactly is the status of those shelters?

Starbuck: At the Record Street shelters, there are about 30 beds. These beds are designated for veterans, people with additional service animals and individuals who use oxygen or CPAP devices that need to be plugged in. There are also a few beds that are in isolation for people who are feeling sick.

Serrano: You've been talking to people who are staying in tents and at the Reno Events Center shelter. How are they feeling?

A woman smiles and holds a box with food inside. There is a person behind her with a mask on.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / Our Town Reno
Our Town Reno
Allyson Lynch outside of St. Vincent's Dining Room in Reno, Nevada on March 23, 2020.

Starbuck: I think people staying at the events center are worried about that many people being in one room together. I talked to one woman named Allyson Lynch, who [has] stayed there since it opened. 

"I was scared to death because my idea was if you put a lot of people that are on the street in one place, during the time that they're out and about, they could have contracted the virus and then you load them into one area, that just kind of doesn't seem that really safe to me. But what they do is, they check your temperature before they enter you. I'm assuming a fever is a sign of the virus itself, so they wouldn't allow you to go into the center without having a decent temperature," Lynch said.

Starbuck: I should also mention there are still many people in our community who decide not to stay in a shelter. A few people I talked to were very adamant that they were safer in their tents by themselves. People also have trauma surrounding shelters and a lot of people have pets, who aren't service animals.

Serrano: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has directed new measures about encampments, asking communities not to dismantle camps, and instead, to advise people to set up their tents 12 feet apart. What other solutions are being suggested by the city at this time?

Starbuck: So, activists and homeless advocates in Reno are pressuring elected officials to get hotel vouchers for houseless individuals so they can have a place to quarantine. Outreach workers are also asking for community donations and advocacy groups are searching for people who are able to help pass out food during the volunteer meals.

Another thing that's in the works is the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board is hearing a proposal for turning ex-military barracks located in Stead into emergency housing for the houseless.

This story was produced in partnership with Our Town Reno.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning political journalist and the host of KUNR’s monthly show Purple Politics Nevada. She is passionate about reporting during election season, attending community events, and talking to people about the issues that matter most to them.
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