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Home > Featured > City Agenda Item on Homelessness Draws Controversy (Updated)

City Agenda Item on Homelessness Draws Controversy (Updated)

By Bob Conrad
A Downtown Reno Ambassador asks an individual sleeping downtown if he needs help. Image: Bob Conrad.
A Downtown Reno Ambassador asks an individual sleeping downtown if he needs help. Image: Bob Conrad.
A Downtown Reno Ambassador asks an idividual sleeping downtown if he needs help. Image: Bob Conrad.

UPDATE JULY 23, 2019: Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve told ThisisReno today that she will be pulling this item from the agenda on Wednesday. While the agenda is still posted as of this morning, she said that she plans to remove it tomorrow.

She said that arresting people for sleeping in public spaces will not help the homeless situation.

Schieve added that she still wants people to weigh in on the issue during public comment. “It’s part of a larger community conversation that needs to occur.”


Reno City Attorney Karl Hall is requesting the Reno City Council approve a resolution allowing him to file a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Boise, Idaho.

The City of Boise is appealing a decision by the Ninth Circuit not to hear a case decided against the city concerning actions Boise took against homeless individuals. Hall’s office wants Reno to support the Boise’s decision to appeal to the nation’s highest court.

“The criminal justice system will not solve the homeless problems we face today, but it is a pivotal piece to a larger puzzle,” Hall wrote in a staff report to the Reno City Council.

Reno City Attorney Karl Hall
Reno City Attorney
Karl Hall

What Hall is opposed to is a Ninth Circuit declining to uphold “a panel decision that municipality cannot criminalize public camping and other activities…”

Plaintiffs in the Boise case were homeless individuals, cited by Boise police, “who violated [no camping and similar] ordinances and with one exception, sentenced to time served.”

The misdemeanor activities: using streets, sidewalks, parks, and other public places for camping, according to Hall’s office. “One plaintiff testified that he reached the limits for how long he could stay in the shelters and refused to enter the Discipleship Program because of his religious beliefs.”

So he slept outside. The city, in turn, cited him, an act that homeless advocates call “criminalizing homelessness.” Homeless individuals sued Boise, in a case called Martin v. Boise.

They prevailed.


“Our shelters are full many nights, especially when it is deadly cold.”


That meant “a municipality cannot criminalize public camping and other activities consistently with the Eight Amendment when no sleeping space is practically available in any shelter,” Hall wrote to the Reno City Council. “Additionally, governments cannot criminalize behavior on the false premises there is a choice for the individual in the matter.”

But a municipality’s legal ability to enforce anti-camping ordinances puts cities in a no-win situation, and may violate the 14th Amendment, Hall added.

“A phrase in the 14th Amendment to the [U.S.] Constitution requires that states guarantee the same rights, privileges, and protections to all citizens,” he indicated. “The [Martin] ruling creates an unequal enforcement of laws creating a class of people who are immune from city ordinances that are in place to protect the health, safety and welfare of everyone.”

Homeless advocates called Hall’s request to support Boise “despicable.” The Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE) wants the item removed from the agenda for Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“As you know, our shelters are full many nights, especially when it is deadly cold,” the organization posted on its website. “Twenty-seven deaths in 2017 and 37 in 2018 (see video). Reno has denied that these ordinances were meant to target people without homes over the years, but in this blatant attempt to legalize torture, they have listed these prohibitions as life-sustaining activities that they want to punish.”

The ordinances include climbing on structures, injuring trees or shrubs, camping, garbage disposal, and prohibiting sitting or lying in doorways.

Similarly, the nonprofit ACTIONN said the agenda item is misplaced.

“We need real solutions to our housing crisis and homelessness in our community that involve evidence-based research, compassion, and dignity, said ACTIONN’s Aria Overli. “Supporting a law in order for our City to engage in behavior that the courts have called ‘cruel and unusual’ should not even be on the table for consideration.”

Paul White with Quality of Life Reno, an organization with a “tough love” approach to education and homelessness, asked council members to keep the item on the agenda.

“Joining Boise and other cities to fight the 9th Circuit Court’s wrong-minded ruling is a step in the right direction for resolving Reno’s out-of-control homeless problem, AND for giving law enforcement the ability to encourage street-dwellers to seek available services, by fairly and firmly enforcing the law equally with the chronic vagrants who refuse services and prey on our community,” he wrote.

Jay Kolbet-Clausell, speaking on behalf of RISE, said that they requested the item be removed from Wednesday’s hearing:

“We wish they would use council time to discuss supporting the new women’s and family shelters that could be open in three months and, of course, affordable housing policies,” he told ThisisReno.

“This item is cruel and exposes the city to further legal challenges.”


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