The Sparks Police Department has allegedly been telling homeless individuals along the Truckee River to get out of town.
A man who goes by “Tarzan” said he was told to move his camp, located at the river on the east edge of Sparks, or risk arrest. He said he was just days away from getting into permanent housing from coordinated entry and assistance from Northern Nevada HOPES when he was told to move.
“(Sparks Police) came in yesterday and said that if anyone was here today they’d take our stuff and take us to jail,” he said last week. “They said they wouldn’t mind it at all if we were across the river (in Storey County). We were (previously) told by Sparks police it was okay to be out here because it was past their jurisdiction.”
“I would be astounded if Sparks was doing that,” said Pat Whitten, Storey County manager, when told that some are alleging that the homeless are being told by police to cross county lines. “I think we have a good working relationship with the city of Sparks.”
Sparks City Manager Stephen Driscoll confirmed that police have been trying to get the homeless off the river. He said it is against the law for them to camp near the river and that police are trying get them to use the Community Assistance Center shelter in Reno or to move along.
“We try to do service first,” he said. “Arrest is the last thing we want to do. They clearly can’t be breaking the law.”
On June 2, 12 people were cited at Glendale Park at 1:15 a.m. for camping in the park at night, Driscoll said. “We had numerous contacts with them, and they were warned not to camp there. We had talked to them more than one time.”
Additionally 15 other people were warned, Driscoll added, and said that there had been no arrests. Another group of people who could not afford recently raised weekly motel rates are being assisted by the Sparks Police Department.
“We’re trying to get them services as quickly as possible,” Driscoll explained.
Some disputed that arrests had not been made. Lisa Lee, a community case manager with HOPES, said that Sparks police confirmed to her they were arresting and citing people.
“Lots of people have ended up going to jail,” she said. “There are not options for people who are excluded from the shelter. That’s not the solution.”
One person, who was camping at Glendale Park, said he was also threatened with arrest and given a citation last week for being in a Sparks park after hours.
The sweeps come as no surprise to homeless advocates, who said that case workers should be on hand before people are moved or cited.
While homelessness is not a crime, critics said that municipalities cite homeless individuals for other infractions, such as being in a park after dark, or panhandling, in order to discourage their presence.
“We’re definitely interested in looking at that,” said Holly Welborn of the Nevada ACLU, which has been researching whether Sparks and Reno have been violating civil rights when dealing with the homeless. “If a person is engaging in a life-sustaining activity… they cannot be ticketed for engaging in these activities. If these individuals are being ticketed (during the day when there is nowhere else for them to go), we would definitely be interested in that.
“If the shelter is at capacity, then they should not have been cited,” she added.
Welborn said that the ACLU, through public records requests, found that both Reno and Sparks have been illegally ticketing homeless individuals when there are no other alternatives available for a place to sleep.
“It’s been very problematic,” she said.