Sweeps: Compassion and contempt

homeless camps cause chaos, but ‘cleanups’ create refugees

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Reno Police Sgt. Tom Ytubide talks to Lily Baran, right, an advocate for unsheltered people, at the Stop the Sweeps protest in City Plaza June 7.

Truckee Meadows officials hyped the Nevada CARES Campus as a milestone in solving the area’s homeless problem, but critics say the new, $9 million “super shelter” and the police sweeps that herd unsheltered people there create further injustices.

“We are at a crisis point here in Reno,” said Rev. Karen Foster, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada. “It’s a crisis of identity, of figuring out who we want to be as a community, a crisis that is making human beings disposable and expendable. The police sweeps to remove our houseless neighbors are abhorrent and must stop, (they) are dehumanizing and demonizing of those who require our care and our compassion.”

Foster, who was among more than 40 people who addressed the Reno City Council about the issue June 9, said the CARES campus is a first step, but “unfortunately, this is a warehousing method and not a long-term solution.”

 Nearly all the speakers were critical of the sweeps of the homeless camps along the Truckee River and elsewhere that began when the 46,000-square-foot-shelter opened May 17 near the I-80/I-580 highway interchange in Reno.

Floyd Arnt

“There is much change that needs to be made in the homeless community by each individual. Most have become complacent, lost in dark places of depression and addiction — some of their own choosing and others by a cascade of events that just fell upon them. Your policy to sweep the streets clean is further instilling fear and confusion in the minds and hearts of those who need to see a light of hope instead of a threat of a much darker place… There remains hope in the hearts of the homeless and in the hearts of those who are not, because this is our home as much as it is yours. I ask you to consider a policy to save the homeless with re-education and jobs that would motivate and restore their self worth and dignity.” – Floyd Arnt, a homeless man, addressing the Reno City Council June 9.

‘Tent cities’ increased

Homeless encampments, a common sight in the area for decades, proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but most were left alone during the crisis. Once the new shelter opened, police and city crews began rolling up the camps after offering occupants access to services and beds at the new shelter, which was at more than 90% of its current capacity. More than 550 people were there as of June 12.

The camps polluted the river with trash and untreated sewage. Police calls surged, both at the campsites and in downtown Reno, city officials said. In the downtown corridor, for example, Reno police logged 1,625 calls for service relating to homeless people last year.

From March 2020 to June 9, 2021, the Reno Fire Department responded to 351 fires at homeless encampments, according to Reno Fire Chief Dave Cochran. “That is a huge number of fires that far exceeds the average,” he said. “…Most of these fires are not related to accidents from cooking or heating; they are conflict-resolution mechanisms. What happens down there is they light fires to resolve conflicts.”

Police ‘changed approach’

Reno Police Chief Jason Soto told the Reno City Council that since the sweeps began May 17, police have made four related arrests, including three for outstanding warrants and one for failure to comply with police orders. He said two citations were issued during the sweeps.

“The reason that (those numbers are) so extremely low is because of the compassion that this council has and the direction that we’ve been given as the Reno Police Department in terms of how to find these individuals resources (they need),” Soto said. “… We have compassion; we know a lot of these individuals on a name basis. We have changed our approach.”

“With this continuum of care (at the CARES Campus) there has to be enforcement. It won’t be perfect, and not every single person will accept the care that’s offered, but the alternative is losing our city to similar cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. We ask that the council hold fast in building our reputation as a city of compassion, but also of accountability, with zero tolerance for those who have refused to respect our river and downtown public areas.”

– Kyle Ray, TDC Development, addressing the Reno City Council June 9.

Advocates for unsheltered people who have been observing the cleanups of the camps argue that some of the police officers involved are condescending and callous when ordering people to abandon the camps, and know that they are scattering them to areas where their case workers can’t locate them.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: “Stop the Sweeps” protestors at City Plaza (Believe Plaza) outside Reno City Hall on June 7.

Cops ‘not social workers’

Crews raze a camp at Edison Way.

“The only reason there have been so few arrests is because mutual-aid workers and other advocates were out there intervening while the police were doing what they were doing,” said Ilya Arbatman, an advocate. “I heard Officer (Jet) Utter say that doing the sweeps is like squeezing Playdough in your hand, a little bit flies over here and little bits fly over there… (he said) ‘I’m not a social worker.’”

Many other advocates who witnessed the cleanups told the City Council about unsheltered people who had been kicked out of one camp and moved to a vacant lot at Edison Way and Mill Street. That camp wasn’t scheduled to be swept until after the “safe camp” at the CARES Campus opened.

But police and city crews leapfrogged to Edison Way and swept that site on June 2. At the council meeting, an advocate played a recording of people pleading for more time to move their belongings before the site was razed by a front-end loader’s blade. The audio is below.

Free speech or camping?

During the week prior to the council meeting, advocates staged a 24-hour protest at City Plaza (Believe Plaza) next to Reno City Hall at 1 E. 1st St. They held “Stop the Sweeps” and other signs. They pitched several tents as props on the lawn at the edge of the plaza, which is a designated “free speech zone.”

Police served the protestors with the same illegal camping notices that are given to the residents of the homeless encampments. The “cleanup” of the grassy area of the plaza was scheduled for June 7. Officers walked through the crowd of demonstrators at noon that day, but left after talking to protestors. The tents weren’t struck until the early morning hours of June 9, when police returned and served six citations for “occupying a park after hours.”

Visual aids

The protestors argued that the tents were visual aids for a demonstration protected by the First Amendment. In an email to the Reno News & Review, former Reno city spokesman Jon Humbert disagreed: “Just because people aren’t sleeping doesn’t mean it isn’t camping. I don’t think people can reasonably expect it to be okay to set up tents next to playground equipment or Virginia Lake and do it for days on end. How is this different?”

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve agreed to meet with some of the advocates on June 10, but as of June 12, no details of that meeting had been released.

Scattering people

Advocates and unsheltered residents speaking at the council meeting and interviewed during the week of June 7 cited several examples of homeless people who were in the process of getting a bed in transitional housing, but who were displaced several times during the sweeps.

Roseanna Zuckerman of Reno said she has been working with a homeless woman to get her into Hope Springs, a tiny-home community. The woman got on the waiting list, but wait times get getting longer. Zuckerman then tried to get the woman into the Our Place women’s shelter, which officials admit doesn’t have the capacity to meet the needs of homeless single women in the area.

As the woman worked to meet the admission requirements and waited for a bed to open up, she was twice swept from her campsites, Zuckerman said. “I don’t know where she’s staying now,” she said. “I’m afraid that directly due to these sweeps, I lost a window to help her move towards a real recovery. I would really ask you to consider what good these sweeps are actually doing.”

Other advocates and social workers cited similar examples of the cleanups sidetracking people’s efforts to obtain help and shelter. In addition, volunteers who had been providing food to homeless residents also have been unable to continue due to the sweeps.

The CARES Campus

Speakers at the council meeting and homeless people interviewed the week of June 7 also complained about conditions at the CARES Campus, where more than 550 people are arranged on cots inside a 46,000-square-foot building that resembles a giant tent. They noted the building’s sewer system broke down soon after the facility opened. Some residents alleged the place is even more unsafe than staying outdoors.

The facility is managed by the Volunteers of America, which hired a private firm to provide security at the shelter. The VOA has reported a total of three physical altercations there since it opened in May. It plans to install commercial high-flow toilets at the facility, which had to resort to relying on Porta Potties in recent weeks.

Although the shelter is near capacity, officials have reported beds being available every day since May 17. Eventually, the CARES Campus will accommodate up to 900 residents, according to planners.

PHOTO/CITY OF RENO: The Nevada CARES Campus under construction in March 2021. The total acquisition and development cost of the project is $16.8 million, supported by federal CARES Act funds. The $9 million temporary shelter is designed to have a capacity of 900 people.

A temporary refuge

The CARES Campus is designed as a starting point for comprehensive, “wrap-around” services and a “continuum of care,” officials said. A “safe camp,” where tents may be set up, is scheduled to open June 16. Case workers are assigned to each client. The idea is to connect people with health care, services and transitional housing.

Those resources haven’t kept pace with needs, however, and there are long waiting lists for housing. Local officials argue the CARES Campus and coordinated, regional services are a vast improvement over past piecemeal efforts. They said they are on the right track to solving the problem.

Natalie Handler, an advocate who works with unsheltered people, said the people tasked with creating solutions are far removed from the streets, camps and shelters that are at the heart of the problem. The planners are focused on data and funding, she said, but are blind to the people involved.

Search for solutions

“So the money gets misappropriated and still doesn’t create any real solutions to end homelessness,” she said. “They put law enforcement in outreach positions that are really meant for trained, professional social workers and mental health workers.”

Handler, who was among the dozens who took part in the protest vigil at City Plaza, with other advocates, has attended meetings aimed at finding solutions to homelessness. She said “they really don’t respond to us at all. That’s why we’re out here (in City Plaza) doing this, the most visible thing. Our hope was that this might make them uncomfortable enough that we could meet with them.

“That’s why we’re out here. We’re not giving up; we’re not going to give up on humans.”

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