River sweeps, cleanup proposal draw rebukes from ACLU, homeless advocates

A homeless encampment with the Reno city skyline behind it.
A homeless encampment near downtown Reno. Photo: Trevor Bexon

By Bob Conrad and Tabitha Mueller | Photos by Trevor Bexon

A $250,000 proposal by the City of Reno to clean up the Truckee River has drawn sharp responses from homeless advocates and the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union.

According to a city staff report, an agenda item for tomorrow’s Reno City Council meeting  proposes to hire a contractor to “address the existing emergency affecting public health and welfare due to encampment along the Truckee River” by creating a “Clean and Safe Team.” 

The team will “remove waste and debris created primarily by illegal camping along the river and other parks impacted by homelessness.” The team will be composed of staff from the Reno Police Department, the City and the contractor, Coit Services.

The city is proposing to spend up to $250,000 to have the team “remove 60-80 cubic yards of waste, including lumber, discarded appliances, mattresses, thousands of used needles, and piles of human waste.” 

They will then dispose of all biohazards and secure personal property at the Record Street Shelter (CAC) where individuals can still access their belongings, according to the City.

The staff report noted that there are no legal implications for the project.

Homeless advocates criticized the proposal.

Various public comments noted that the agenda item “came out of the blue,” and could be traumatic for those who are displaced. The money for the cleanup and contractors could go to providing other services instead of pushing people out of their camps, they said.

Concerns about the proposal also included the potential for violating the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, which prohibit the unlawful search and seizure of possessions and removal of people from a public space if there is no shelter space available.

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“The city is at serious risk for violating people’s rights,” said Holly Welborn, policy director with the ACLU of Nevada.  

The proposal is not advocating for throwing people into jail or increasing penalties for homelessness, but Welborn said violations of people’s rights could stem from the city’s activities.

For example, homeless advocates said area shelters have been consistently full, which could lead to the displacement of individuals. There is also the potential for homeless citizens to lose access to their belongings after the city removes them.

Welborn referenced Las Vegas’ criminalization of homelessness as something the City of Reno should avoid and said the ACLU did not hear of the proposal until Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve reportedly said that camping along the river should be illegal.

“Fear [surrounding this proposal] is legitimate,” Welborn said. As of right now, she said the ACLU has no knowledge of the city violating any rights.

Welborn recommended “the City of Reno…continue to lead and think housing first and be creative and innovative and have compassion for the rights of all of Reno’s residents.”

Schieve told This Is Reno that her plans to clean up the Truckee River should not involve displacing anyone. 

The city has been conducting what it calls “cleanups” near the river, and other parts of the city, since at least June. It gives homeless residents, as part of the efforts, a pamphlet with a list of services.

“Our region can’t turn a blind eye to the challenge of safety on the Truckee,” said city spokesperson Jon Humbert. “We’ve made it a high priority for service outreach to our homeless community to help bring them in from the cold and have access to vital needs.”

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City’s approach questioned

Homeless advocates are criticizing the city’s activities in addressing homelessness. Some have called the city’s methods ‘a war on the homeless.’ 

A recent incident at Pickett Park prompted such criticisms. While the Reno Police Department said it was recommending those camping at the park to leave, RPD’s PIO said they were not forcing people to move. 

The effect, however, has been the same. City employees, sometimes under the dark of early morning, have been cleaning up areas around the city, including near Grand Sierra Resort, the Truckee River path, at Keystone Avenue, Wells Avenue and near the baseball stadium.

Advocates said the cleanups displaced those living in the area.

Aria Overli, the lead organizer for Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN), called the city’s actions shortsighted.

“There is a tendency for quick-fix solutions in our community when we fail to fully invest and support services and affordable housing,” she said. “We are disappointed that it is always the marginalized who get scapegoated for this failure to act. 

“We hope that the City will continue to find money and support for better affordable housing options in our community so that the well-being of our neighbors does not get pitted against the needs of the community. Supporting one means supporting the other.”

Reno City Councilmember Neoma Jardon called on the Reno Police Department to clear up any misinformation about the river clean-up proposal. RPD said the plan is a way to create a safe and healthy environment for all citizens.

Other actions

The Community Homelessness Advisory Board (CHAB), a meeting of local elected officials to address the region’s growing homeless crisis, met Monday morning at the Washoe County Commission Chambers to discuss the Point in Time (PIT) count taking place Jan. 30, 2020. It also heard updates on the Eddy House, cleanups around the Truckee River, and other matters pertinent to homelessness.

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The PIT count is a federally mandated annual volunteer-driven count of people on the streets and in homeless shelters on one night in January. Data from the count is used to determine fund allocations for housing and other programs for homeless people.

Although members of the CHAB concurred PIT counts are essential for funding sources, they emphasized the need for more data on homeless individuals in Reno. They also agreed with a suggestion from a public commentator to ensure there are no sweeps before the PIT count, which has happened in the past. 

In his update to the board, Diaz Dixon, CEO of Eddy House, announced the organization is moving to a new location on Willow Street close to Renown Medical Center. Beginning in January, Eddy House will also be open 24/7 for homeless and at-risk youth. 

Advisory board members also briefly discussed the potential for, and feasibility of, a park where homeless people could legally camp, looking into a creative solution allowing homeless people with pets to stay in shelters, and creating quarterly reports on homelessness for the CHAB to stay better informed on what’s happening in Washoe County.

The CHAB, formed in 2018, meets the first Monday of every month at the Washoe County Commission Chambers. 

Its members are Bob Lucey (Chair, County Commissioner) Marsha Berkbigler (County Commissioner), Neoma Jardon (Vice-Chair, City of Reno Councilmember), Oscar Delgado (City of Reno Councilmember), Kristopher Dahir (City of Sparks Councilmember), and Ed Lawson (City of Sparks Councilmember).

Bob Conrad
About Bob Conrad 1135 Articles
Bob Conrad is co-founder of ThisisReno. He manages ThisisReno as publisher and executive editor. He also works part time for the University of Nevada, Reno.

5 Comments

  1. This year I rode Amtrak from Reno to Seattle then down to Los Angeles. It was appalling to see the filth along the rail tracks of tramps. I can not say homeless, because these folks were not attempting to help themselves. You could see where they moved but left their trash and refuse behind. Portland was disgusting with tents compounds under every bridge or open space along the streets. Portland used to be a beautiful town. Los Angeles was every bit as bad as Potland, if not worse. Don’t allow this to happen to Reno or Sparks. These folks chose this way of life, looking for every handout there is. Tough love is the answer. Get out is the only word.

  2. I think as long as we continue to give ,they will take. We need to clean it up and stop supporting this way of life. It has to do with people supporting themselves. My taxes would be better spent on police, fire fighters and teachers. Please clean up our city.

  3. Allowing the homeless to stay in the park is a slippery slope to becoming just like many California cities. It is not healthy for the homeless or the city. Please do not let this happen.

  4. I think this homeless situation needs to be addressed by the City. On a recent walk, down the Truckee River from downtown I encountered a homeless encampment directly behind the Aces Ball Park. It was scary and terrible. Piles of trash, old clothing, shoes, needles, and other “stuff” was in evidence. Drug addiction should be vigorously addressed and the right to do drugs should not infringe on our public space. Accepting their “right” to do drugs is enabling them to continue the addiction and allowing someone to indulge in that behavior is not doing them a favor. The trash in the river was unbelievable. I am so upset about this, the Truckee River is our drinking water, it is our recreation, it is a sacred treasure to be protected and honored by all. The Homeless do not have the right to pollute our river and neither does anyone else. I constantly pick up plastic trash along my walks. The ACLU needs to find another cause, this one infringes on our river’s rights. I stand behind Mayor Schieve in her efforts to bar these people from camping near our river. I’m also tired of having to pay to clean up their mess. Prevent them from camping there in the first place. Why should they clean it up when we consistently come and do it for them?

  5. I’m sure it’s very challenging being homeless, but to live surrounded in your own garbage and feces until somebody is hired to clean up after you? We need a permanent solution.

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