‘Super shelter’ isn’t enough

Local governments revamp region’s approach to homelessness

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Tom, who has been in Reno since January, sings and plays guitar on Fourth Street near Keystone Avenue. He said his lost his job in Oregon when the antique store where he worked closed during the COVID-19 shutdown. He was evicted from a rented mobile home five months later and hit the road in December.

With a $16.8 million Reno “super shelter” scheduled to open in April, Truckee Meadows officials are planning a regional approach for tackling the homeless problem.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of homeless encampments around Reno continues to grow during the pandemic, although officials can’t pinpoint how much the economic pressures of the contagion contributed to the increase. The city conducted several homeless encampment sweeps and site cleanups in the fall, scattering the residents into other sites along the Truckee River and around the metro area. Now, major enforcement actions are on hold barring immediate health or safety threats, officials said.

“We’ve minimized any sort of large-scale operations until the Nevada Cares Campus is complete and open,” said John Humbert, Reno city spokesman. “The thought is that it’s humane and appropriate to give people time and space when we can’t fully offer what they need yet.”

The new services campus and regional strategy is designed to expand the area’s response to homelessness and eliminate many obstacles that get in the way of helping people get off the streets, he said.

“The Cares Campus will be a huge change for our community without being a huge burden on the taxpayers,” Humbert said. “This is the perfect opportunity to take things to the next level. I think it’s the best thing we can be doing for the city right now.”

IMAGE/CITY OF RENO: The site plan for the Reno Cares Campus at the Governor’s Bowl.
The Community Homelessness Advisory Board meets at 9 p.m. Monday, March 1 in a public meeting available on Zoom. The agenda and a sign-up/public comment form for the meeting are available online.

The Reno Cares Campus

The shelter and services complex will sit on about 6 acres once occupied by the Governor’s Bowl ball field on the southwest side of the Spaghetti Bowl highway interchange. Local governments are using $16.8 million in congressional COVID-19 relief allocations to build the campus, with Washoe County contributing 70%, Reno kicking in 20% and Sparks accounting for 10% of the total.

The nearly 46,000 sq. ft complex will increase the area’s shelter capacity to about 700 beds. A portion of the land will include tents and some permanent structures for day-use shelters, warming areas, and meal areas. Another section of the property is earmarked to be used to place low-income housing or traditional housing, but there’s no timetable for those.

Reno currently has Our Place, a shelter for women and families; shelters for single men; and Eddy House, which serves teens and young adults. Unmarried couples living outdoors often decline to go to the gender-specific shelters, he said, because they would be split up. Our Place allows pets, but the other shelters don’t — another reason some people decline offers of help.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Part of the encampment across the Truckee River from Fisherman’s Park on Jan. 28.

Removing barriers

“We need more appropriate space for families, for women, unmarried couples and also those with pets,” Humbert said. It’s uncertain how services may be spread out among the existing facilities and the new campus. “We’ll feel that out as far as where people may go,” he said. “Our hope is that we’ll have the services to fit anyone’s needs depending on their situation.”

Mitigating homelessness has been a challenge for the Reno area for decades. Shelters are created, programs and plans are developed, but little progress seems to be made. This time, Humbert said, things will be different.

“We want to have a place that people want to go,” he said. “Some people will always want to live a freer lifestyle, a more vagabond existence, and that’s a choice that people can make. But we want to remove the other kinds of barriers. We want to give folks every opportunity to feel that that’s not the best way, that there is a way to be warm at night and to be safe. We want to help people get out of that situation on the streets.”

— Jon Humbert, Reno spokesman.

It’s not only the new facility that will be different, he said. For years, the approach to homelessness has been fragmented, with little communication or cooperation among police departments, governments, non-profit groups and community activists. That’s about to change, according to the Community Homeless Advisory Board, a panel made up of elected officials from Washoe County and the two cities.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Tom, 59, who has been unsheltered for four months after losing his job due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and his dog, Boomer, on Fourth Street in Reno on Feb. 27. He makes money by playing guitar and singing classic rock and country tunes and is saving for a rent-subsidized apartment. “It’s not bad, I get to see people smile when I play my music,” he said. “I’m not going to (live outdoors) much longer. I’ll find a place for me with a yard for Boomer. My body can’t take staying outside much longer.”

A regional strategy

The advisory board meets monthly. The last few meetings have been devoted to developing a regional strategy aimed at mitigating homelessness, including ways to centralize services and data. The result so far has been setting priorities for attacking different aspects of the issue and the development of some new approaches.

The panel’s current goals, activities and the status of its various plans are outlined in a “solutions matrix,” which may be downloaded as a PDF file, below.

Law enforcement’s role

In August, the Sparks Police Department created a cadre consisting of a sergeant and two officers called the Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement  to assist unsheltered people by working with local organizations and charities to offer them services prior to enforcing the laws that prohibit camping in public areas.

Beginning in November, the squad members visited a homeless encampment at Gateway Park three times a week along with workers and volunteers from non-profit agencies and advocacy groups. They offered the residents help in getting state identification cards so they can apply for Social Security benefits and other government assistance. They connected some of the people there with services and resources including transitional housing, food banks, medical care, behavioral health services, trash clean up assistance and relocation services.

The Gateway sweep

The idea is for the officers to get to know the unsheltered people and gain their trust. At Gateway Park, the experiment lasted three months. On Feb. 17, Sparks Police, citing complaints about criminal activity and health concerns, swept about 25 campers from the area. Cleanup crews then loaded up and carted away trash and some of the campers’ possessions. Individuals and couples who declined to go to shelters moved on to other illegal campsites. One woman was arrested on a charge of obstructing police.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Gateway Park in Sparks on Feb. 16. Police and city workers conducted a sweep the following day, scattering about 25 unsheltered people and cleaning up the park.

The Sparks’ HOPE team’s philosophy of putting services before enforcement will be used as a model for the area’s other jurisdictions. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and the Reno Police Department will create their own three-person teams. The Sparks officers will train them, according to the advisory board.

Clean and safe

The HOPE squad will augment the efforts of Reno’s existing Clean and Safe Team, which focuses on public health and welfare issues related to homeless encampments. That team is made up of employees of the Reno police and fire departments, Public Works, Parks & Recreation, Neighborhood Services and the Reno City Attorney’s Office. The Clean and Safe team conducted the homeless camp sweeps and cleanup efforts in the fall.

The Reno Police Department also has a Homeless Outreach Team, which is aimed at connecting people to community resources. That cadre consists of four fulltime officers and a sergeant. An summary of law enforcement’s role in the homelessness response plan is shown in the downloadable PDF, below.

Built for Zero

Built for Zero is a movement of more than 85 communities across the country. Its goal is to work to measurably end homelessness through changing how local housing systems work and “to ensure an end to homelessness that lasts, and leaves no one behind.” Local governments joined Built For Zero in April of 2020.

The Truckee Meadows core panel consists of representatives from each of the three jurisdictions and the Veterans Administration. Thirty-five local non-profits, other organizations and community activists have joined the initiative in Washoe County.

“All team members are staff that provide homeless services in our community,” said Dana M. Searcy, special projects manager at Washoe County. She said the effort will ensure that “all voices are heard.”

The effort, she said, will employ “community-level measurement,” which is focused not on the success of individual programs, but on the system as a whole. So far, the initiative has collected whatever data is available on the region’s homeless population. The members plan to continue to centralize the data about the area’s homeless population and make the statistics available to the public each month.

IMAGE/BUILT FOR ZERO: The statistics reflect only individuals

By the numbers

“The team is currently working to bring all of the data in our community together to build comprehensive quality data related to those experiencing homelessness and the available services and housing to support them,” Searcy said.

“One of the tools we are developing is called a by-name list, which identifies each individual in our community experiencing homelessness. It starts with a name but expands with the intent of getting to know people. What motivates them, what barriers to housing exist and how can we help address these barriers.”

— Dana M. Searcy, who is leading the local Built for Zero initiative.

The numbers being used so far only reflect the programs that are reporting into the county’s existing centralized system. An annual point-in-time count of homeless people was conducted this month, but those numbers are not yet available.

The challenge continues

By walking along the Truckee River bike path and periodically visiting other homeless encampments starting in June, a Reno News & Review reporter documented an exponential growth in camps and areas where trash piled up over a period of months.

The river bank across from Fisherman’s Park in Reno, for example, grew from a few tents in September to a cluster of tents, shelters and large trash piles by November. The river banks from the Wells Avenue Overpass to John Champion Park had a scattering of tents in August, but by January campsites, tents and tarp shelters had sprung up on both sides of the Truckee.

The property under the Wells Overpass is now a tent village, where campers are allowed to stay without being hassled by police. That site is a “staging area,” Humbert said, in preparation for the opening of the Cares Campus sometime in April.

Sweep trash, not people

Humbert said the Clean and Safe Team is focused on cleaning up refuse at camps without evicting the residents as long as the camps are relatively out of sight and not causing anyone a problem. He said people will be moved out of areas when there is a risk to public safety.

“That’s what happened (with the camp) on Commercial Row where there was violence and fires next to the train tracks,” he said. “Those types of things cannot go on. That has to be priority.” He said the campsites along the river are monitored for health and safety problems.

“Now, during the pandemic and while we’re waiting for the Cares Campus to come on line, it’s mostly about the waste, the trash, the things that shouldn’t be there, rather than the people,” Humbert said. “You can’t always separate those things, but in the last few months we’ve been doing more cleanup. We ask people to put their trash in one area and we take it away.”

IMAGE/BUILT FOR ZERO: An overview graphic of the regional plan to mitigate homelessness.

The campsites remain

He said the campers are encouraged to take advantage of services, but no one can be forced to accept those offers. Without adequate options, or due to mental health or substance abuse situations, many people choose to stay outside.

“Enforcement moves the problem elsewhere,” Humbert noted. He said major sweeps won’t be happening prior to the opening of the new homeless campus, unless criminal activity or health threats come into play.

“Piles of garbage in the street or human waste going into the river are not remotely OK,” he said. “It’s not acceptable in this community, or any other community.” 

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    • Good question. Thomas, the man in the main photo, wound up in Reno in January en route from Oregon to Salt Lake City via his thumb. He stopped over to sleep and was assaulted while camped along the banks of Truckee River. He was seriously injured in the senseless attack, by an individual who was not another homeless person BTW, and required surgery (I verified that) and he remains in Reno under a doctor’s care. He is connected with social services and on a list for subsidized housing, which still requires first and last-month’s rent to move in ($400 per month; quite a deal in this town, even though it’s a room the size of a cell.) Since June, I’ve interviewed several dozen unsheltered people and the vast majority were originally from here. Those who were not often said they came here because they had relatives or acquaintances in the area or were drawn to Reno because it’s a tourist/casino economy that makes panhandling somewhat easier than in other cities.

  1. Before we escaped Reno three years ago our options for affordable rentals were next to none. Corporations like Tesla were buying up property or building for their own, leaving those who needed affordable housing out in the cold. Remember, a large percentage of this problem involves the mentally ill who have no where to go and no one to go to.

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