The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) on Tuesday gave houseless individuals living in a camp a seven-day notice that they must leave the area, and that anything left behind would be thrown away. The small camp is home to a handful of unsheltered individuals, and two dogs, and is located near the eastbound I-80 Keystone Avenue off-ramp in Reno.
Reno native Josh Rubin said he has been in this location for less than two weeks. He said he was relieved that he got a seven-day notice, noting that he has been kicked out of previous camps without warning and threatened with arrest, or watched his items get bulldozed away. Rubin said he has stuck with the others living in this camp for about seven years.
“We got a week to move out. That gives us plenty of time to clean up the area, make it look nice for them so when NDOT comes through, they can come through and not have issues or anything like that,” Rubin said. “In fact, if they remember us around here, I wouldn’t mind being cleanup crew for the city too…We’re just trying to survive in life, and get jobs, and do the regular normal life thing too, with just an extra style of being homeless.”
Rubin has been houseless on and off for about seven years. He said he had to start fresh after his belongings were burned in a fire when the place where he was living, the Stardust Apartments, located in Reno, went up in flames in 2017. He said he recently had to relocate from a spot where he was living underneath the Vine Street bridge and said having to move from place-to-place is tiring.
“It’s exhausting. It’s very exhausting because once we find the camp that we go to, we get barely any time to, like, get ourselves situated. Our stuff’s planned out and everything, and then we have to move again,” Rubin said. “We don’t really want to have to continue to do that. We just want to find a spot where they will leave us alone. If we have respect for the area where we’re at, they’ll leave us alone, then let us take care of it instead them having to come and push us out because we’re being a bunch of lazy, you know, good for nothing bums.”
NDOT cleared a small camp in Sparks last week, and the City of Reno cleaned a huge camp under the Wells Avenue overpass, displacing hundreds of unsheltered community members, but houseless individuals rely on these camps.
“We stay a tight knit group. We feed each other. We help each other out. Even if there’s kids around, we make sure that the kids are well fed, even bathed and all that stuff,” Rubin said.
Balancing competing public health concerns
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends to avoid disbanding encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic because that action can cause people to disperse into the community and potentially contribute to the spread of the virus. Displacing individuals from camps can also break their connections with service providers.
However, this camp has received numerous complaints from a neighboring RV park, whose residents expressed concerns about vandalism, needles and raw food from the camp on private residential areas, according to Meg Ragonese, the public information officer for NDOT.
“Following Centers for Disease Control guidance, NDOT has suspended major homeless encampment clean-up activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce movement and potential virus spread across the community,” Ragonese said. “This specific clean-up is a targeted effort to balance safety for the affected residents, children and community members while helping to provide access to social services for those in need.”
Two officials with NDOT, a Reno Police Department officer and a staff member from the Washoe County Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST) visited the camp on Tuesday morning.
An official from NDOT passed out the seven-day notice with a date and time that the cleanup activity will occur. The officer monitored the situation, and a staff member from MOST offered access to health care services like temporary isolated housing and COVID-19 testing. These interactions lasted about 15 minutes before the officials left the camp.
Outreach efforts difficult, can fall short
MOST is not part of the notification process or the actual cleanup procedures. Instead staff members visit camps in an effort to connect individuals with services, according to Amber Howell, the director of the Washoe County Human Services Agency (HSA).
“It’s more in response to other groups going in and providing notices and telling individuals that they need to relocate,” Howell said. “We do any services, from offering them food or transportation, medical assistance if needed, determine if they have family close by or need transportation like bus passes, those types of things. We’re more there to be a supportive role, to see where we can help individuals. Their number one task is not to be part of disrupting or relocating individuals.”
Howell said MOST’s role is to de-escalate situations and possibly intervene to connect individuals to care before they end up needing to go to the hospital or jail.
MOST can also help unsheltered individuals who are seeking COVID-19 testing. HSA also has a contract with WellCare to use some of their property to provide isolated housing for houseless individuals who are presumptive or test positive for COVID-19. Howell said there are 43 beds available and 19 individuals have used this housing option.
During MOST’s visit to the camp near the Keystone off-ramp, the staff member only talked to each individual for a few minutes. The MOST staff member at the camp said they could not comment, and Howell said she did not know what the team member discussed with people living in the Keystone camp. She said MOST never wants people to feel they’re being forced to access services.
Howell also said MOST’s role varies based on the situation, and whether it was elevated or not.
“If it’s not productive, the MOST team can go back and make that connection again with that individual when there’s not so many people around,” she said. “It gets pretty stressful in those types of interactions.”
Howell recognizes that trying to connect houseless individuals to services while they are being told to relocate is challenging.
“Imagine being the individual that’s being relocated. That’s very stressful,” Howell said. “Sometimes they don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know where they’re going. When you uproot someone’s existence and place them to another location, it’s really stressful, and we understand that. It’s not uncommon sometimes for people to decline services, especially when there’s a lot of people standing around someone telling them they need to go to another location.”
Howell also shared some of her frustrations about communication. She said there have been several occasions where MOST was informed that an agency is going to provide a camp a seven-day notice the night before. She said she would like for MOST to be able to intervene even before notices are given.
Howell said MOST has made 739 initial contacts so far this year and 406 follow ups, including 192 contacts with people living homeless. They’ve provided referral services to 261 individuals to get assistance for psychological, legal, shelter and other issues. In 2019 MOST made contact with 2,053, individuals including 755 people living homeless.
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.