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Displaced during the pandemic, a small homeless camp gets swept away

By Lucia Starbuck
Published: Last Updated on

By Lucia Starbuck | Images by Eric Marks

A small camp with a handful of unsheltered individuals packed up all of their belongings and relocated on June 2, due to a scheduled cleanup in the area. The individuals were tucked away along the Interstate 80 right-of-way in Sparks near the Spaghetti Bowl.

One man, 34-year-old Levi Whitehead, had been staying there for a little over a month after being displaced from his last location.

“It’s really annoying. I wish they would just find a spot for us to park it and keep it parked,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead has been houseless for about 14 years. He said he works for his friend doing landscaping work and makes $60 a day, but it still isn’t enough to afford housing. He said when he asks for money he is treated poorly.

“I was flying a sign, and I have a job, it’s just 60 bucks a day though,” Whitehead said. “So, that’s enough for food, or laundry for the day, or whatever. So, they tell me to get a job and it’s like, come on now, that’s not necessary. Why are you saying that negativity? Like, I have a job, you don’t even know me.”

Whitehead said he is not sure where he is going next, but he might return to the same spot later.

The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) conducted the cleanup activity at the site, which was on state property. There is a “No Trespassing” sign. 

NDOT coordinated with local law enforcement and the Washoe County Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST) and notified three people who were present at the camp that they must relocate by June 2. That notice was given seven days prior, on May 26, according to Meg Ragonese with NDOT.

Whitehead said he wasn’t at the camp when the notices were given out, but when he returned he had a piece of paper posted on his belongings. 

Ragonese said MOST offered access to temporary isolated housing, COVID-19 testing and other health care services.

CDC recommends not breaking up encampments

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends to avoid displacing houseless individuals living in encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. This action can cause people to disperse into the community and potentially contribute to the spread of the virus. It can also break connections with service providers.

This camp is directly behind the Boys & Girls Club of Truckee Meadows Donald W. Reynolds Youth & Teen Facility, which cares for 60 children of health care professionals and first responders, according to Ragonese. She said staff at the center have voiced concerns about trash and potential exposure to biohazards, such as bodily waste and used needles.

“Following CDC guidance, NDOT has suspended major homeless encampment cleanup activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce movement and potential virus spread across the community,” Ragonese said. “This specific cleanup is a targeted effort to balance safety for the affected center’s children, staff, families and community members while helping to provide access to social services for those in need.”

A private clean-up crew was hired by NDOT to remove a homeless camp near Interstate 80 on June 2, 2020. Image: Eric Marks
A private cleanup crew was hired by NDOT to remove a homeless camp near Interstate 80 on June 2, 2020. Image: Eric Marks

NDOT contracts small business for clean-up

There was one NDOT representative at the camp along with Hess Trash Company, a small trash removal company owned by Aaron Hess. Hess has four staff, and their duties are roadside trash removal and camp removals that NDOT assigns to them. 

Hess said his crew conducts camp removals several times a month for NDOT. He said this is the first cleanup he has done since March, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said camp removal isn’t an easy task.

“It’s very difficult,” Hess said. “It’s really hard on us to see how individuals live on the streets. It’s really hard for us to come in and take some of their belongings. While a lot of them have no value and they’re really dirty and nasty, it’s still someone’s stuff.”

Even though the CDC recommends not to displace people, Hess said people are not supposed to return after removal of trash and hazards.

“There’s not an option because it’s on state-owned property,” Hess said. “These areas are fenced in, but they’ve had a hole torn in them or cut in them. These are off-limit areas.”

Hess Trash Removal’s current contract went into effect on Jan. 7, 2020 and ends Dec. 31, 2020. 

The total contract value is $249,000. 

“Funding for preserving safety and environmental cleanliness standards through highway right-of-way encampment cleanups comes from the state highway funds derived from vehicle registration fees and state gasoline taxes paid at the gas pump,” Ragonese said.

Ragonese said that the payment per cleanup activity depends on the volume of trash at the location. She said the payment for the sweep conducted on Tuesday will be based on the total yards of debris removed, which has not been calculated as of June 3.

Shelter scheduled to close soon, presentation on safe camps delayed

As unsheltered individuals are displaced by these scheduled cleanups, where are they supposed to go?

There are beds available at the Reno Events Center makeshift shelter, but some worry about being exposed to COVID-19. 

Temporary bedding at Reno Events Center
Temporary bedding at Reno Events Center for people living homeless. Image: Trevor Bexon

The Washoe County Health District and the Nevada National Guard tested 107 houseless individuals at the Reno Events Center on May 14, but did not receive 18 positive test results until May 27. 

The WCHD said it was too late to isolate those individuals because after 10 days from testing positive and showing no symptoms of COVID-19, individuals cannot spread the virus.

The Reno Events Center shelter is also expected to close mid June.

Families are being moved into Our Place, a new shelter run by the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE) the week of June 8, according to Kate Thomas, the Washoe County Assistant Manager. She said she’s bringing a lease to the Washoe County Board of County Commissioners on June 16 to move women into the overflow shelter on Washington Street in Reno. Our Place is expecting to allow women to live there in August 2020. There is not an identified place for all of the men to go once the Reno Events Center shelter closes.

Advocacy groups like RISE are pushing for a safe camp initiative, which would be a designated piece of land that would be a safe place for unsheltered individuals to sleep.

RISE was set to present its safe camp initiative at the Washoe County Community Homelessness Advisory Board (CHAB) on June 1. However, the CHAB meeting was canceled less than 30 minutes before it was scheduled to start.

“These last-minute changes break public trust and are responsible for the loss of faith in our elected officials and governmental institutions,” RISE wrote in a Facebook post on June 1. “A sweep is scheduled to move over 230 people over the next two days. This is not the time for sweeps but a time for listening to everyone in our community who has been speaking out. We need these public meetings so people are respectfully heard.”

Thomas said the riot in Reno that erupted after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday threw a wrench in things.

“Only two of the CHAB members of the voting elected officials were able to make it. I think it has a lot to do with what was occurring over the weekend,” Thomas said. “So, we were given the advice by the District Attorney’s office that we should cancel for lack of a quorum.”

Thomas said that RISE does not need CHAB’s approval as it is just an advisory board, but RISE is rescheduled to present on July 6. 

The initiative will have to be presented in front of Reno City Council, according to Thomas. She said the City of Reno is searching for a location for a safe camp in the meantime. 

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