By Lucia Starbuck, Jeri Davis and Bob Conrad
Images by Eric Marks and Isaac Hoops
Reno Police Officers today prevented local journalists from This Is Reno, Our Town Reno and KRNV from documenting the cleanup of homeless encampments along the Truckee River.
Multiple police vehicles and officers were blocking access to the site below the Wells Avenue overpass. Officers later prevented journalists from entering the area at the west end of East Commercial Row. Both efforts by RPD prevented access to multiple acres where people had been living.
The day before today’s cleanups, This Is Reno covered other area clean-up activities without any restrictions, including taking dozens of photographs of the cleanup.
Officers today said the site was off limits for our “safety,” saying it’s a “rule.” Officers could not cite a specific law or city code that gave them the authority to remove people from the location. They repeatedly said the area was closed for “construction activity.”
“This is all closed because it’s an active construction zone,” an officer said. He also said if we came back into the location, they would have to search us “for everything we already cleared out. We just want to keep everyone out.”
One officer on scene was reported to be Ryan Gott, who faced a complaint in April for saying on Facebook, “Load up as many homeless as you can and leave the state.”
That was directed at homeless advocate Lisa Lee, who subsequently filed a complaint against Gott. Lee said she was verbally told by police officials that Gott’s behavior may have violated RPD policies, but that a decision would be made by Gott’s supervisor.
“They called me and said it was sent to a supervisor. Nothing after that,” Lee said today. She said it was Gott on site today and said he and other officers were harassing the people living homeless at the site.
RPD’s public information officer did not respond to an email for comment and verification by the time of publication.
A city worker operating large equipment was on lunch break when this occurred and said we were not in his way or interfering with his activities.
Four media representatives were reporting on the same cleanup earlier in the day with no restricted access.
City of Reno spokesperson Jonathan Humbert, upon seeing a Twitter video by This Is Reno, tweeted we should have called him.
“We have allowed, and will continue to allow media outlets access to portions of the encampments. But they are dangerous for everyone and that’s exactly why people can’t live there. Could have also given me a call, ya know, the PIO, to help,” Humbert wrote.
An officer at the scene questioned why we were there and asked why This Is Reno didn’t report on all of the Police Department’s “outreach activities” prior to the cleanup.
“What’s the goal today?” he asked.
“What’s the goal today? Transparency,” responded Bob Conrad, This Is Reno’s editor.
Humbert said people should trust the city.
“Trust the officers’ discretion in an area that’s restricted or don’t. I trust them. Because we’ve gone beyond to provide access and will continue to do so,” he commented on Twitter.
Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU said, in response to RPD’s activities, “The press is protected by the First Amendment. Guaranteeing that is the ability to bear witness to the actions of government officials.”
The ACLU was on site this morning monitoring the cleanup.
“We probably should’ve been able to stay at that encampment,” Welborn said. “The press should have the ability to observe what is happening. Reporters go into dangerous situations all the time. To stifle the freedom of the press in that way is very concerning.”
More than 200 unsheltered individuals must find a new place to stay
Over 200 unsheltered individuals have set up camp near downtown Reno and have been there since the beginning of March 2020, but they all had to clear out today because of the cleanup ordered by the City of Reno.
When the camp is full, about 270 people live there according to the Nevada ACLU. There were about 200 tents according to the Reno Police Department, and tents can shelter multiple people.
A majority of those staying at the camp left last night. Some this morning were still trying to pack up all of their belongings before finding somewhere new to stay. RPD officers were at the camp at 5 a.m.
The first time that it happened we were essentially told, ‘You’re gonna move, or we’re gonna make you move.’”
Lonnie, who did not want to provide his last name, has lived at this camp since March 29. He said he worked through a temporary service but he was out of work by March 21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he was just recently able to find work again.
“Instead of trying to make it in a hotel to where you gotta pay later on, if you are not able to pay it that time, now I’m here,” Lonnie said. “Right here is not where I’d rather be, but [there is] no help. Then now, I gotta go back to work, that’s great, but now I gotta do it from the streets.”
He said this is not the first time he has been houseless, but the last time he was unsheltered was a long time ago.
Another man named James, who also did not want to provide his last name, was in a rush to pack up his campsite this morning.
Like Lonnie, he lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic. He was working at Diamond Casino in Reno, but gaming was shut down and deemed as non-essential.
“What do we do? Like, I mean because the virus, I can’t get a job. I don’t get unemployment. What the fuck are we supposed to do?” James asked. “I didn’t get unemployment because I only had worked there for like a week. I was just starting to do really good.”
Many of the houseless people at the encampment spoke of their desire for a safe, designated space to camp.
Among them was a young houseless woman named Moriah, who was loading her belongings onto a small wagon to take them to a new site across the river.
“I’m originally from Sacramento,” Moriah said. “I’ve been here since 2015. I celebrated my 15th birthday here in Reno. And I’ve been homeless off and on since early 2016. I was a runaway. I’m only 20. In fact, I just had my 20th birthday.”
She said having police break up a camp is always a scary experience for her, but this time was less so compared to previous cleanups.
“The first time that it happened we were essentially told, ‘You’re gonna move, or we’re gonna make you move,’” she said. “I will never say that all cops are bad cops, but there are a select few that absolutely despise us.”
She said the first time she was at a camp that was ordered to move, bulldozers were brought in.
“And they learned that’s the most efficient way to get rid of everybody’s crap,” she said. “When they give us notices, they label it as maintenance, cleaning, a health problem. Ninety percent of us aren’t a health problem. If the city were to give us more trash cans—and people wouldn’t set them on fire—then we’d probably be good. But with the violence that goes on, it’s definitely tough. We want a safe camp to go and, you know, be safe in.”
Another young houseless person at the camp on the morning of June 3 was Brian. He said he doesn’t stay there. Instead, he lives in an abandoned house—but he visits the camp every morning.
“A lot of times I pick up trash or just hang out with friends,” he said.
He said he was a friend of Michael Roach, who was shot dead at the camp on May 22.
“I heard the shots,” he said. “Yeah, I was way down Wells [Avenue], though. … And then the people stole all of his stuff, his fricking wallet and everything. It sucked.”
The threat of violence and theft is part of the reason he doesn’t stay at the camp.
“I refuse to live down here,” he said. “I have a lot of friends down here. I did camp down here at one time, but it’s just not for me. I’ve got to have a different living situation.”
Brian thinks moving the camps is futile.
“It’s a waste of time, in my opinion, moving people,” he said. “What do they do? They kick everybody out from up there. They all moved to the other side of the tracks, and they all camped out there for the winter. And then they kicked them out of there, and they came over here. So, what are they going to do when they kick them out of here? They’re going to back up there, you know.”
He thinks city officials need to seek a way to resolve the problem, but isn’t sure a designated safe camp area will be the resolution.
“Then they’re going to say, ‘Well, we designated the Reno Events Center as a safe space’ or something like that or the mission,” Brian said. “I don’t stay at the mission because I have PTSD, and I can’t handle being in a room with that many people. It’s a very difficult thing for me, and a lot of these people have PTSD, too.”
Strong ACLU presence at sweep
ACLU observers made their presence known during the early hours of the sweep. ACLU held a virtual observation training last night, instructing volunteers how to witness and document public events.
Troy Forbes participated in the training last night. He is houseless himself but wanted to be at the cleanup to observe RPD.
“I’m observing and helping to keep the police honest,” Forbes said. “It’s an uphill battle because it always seems like they always get the upper hand no matter what, and it’s like they can’t be touched.”
ACLU’s Welborn was at the campsite in the morning, too.
“My observations of this camp is that there seems to be sub-camps within it that have far fewer than 10 people in them,” she said. “The camp here has a total of about 270 people when it’s full, but they’re dispersed and spread out. So, those are better conditions for individuals to be able to space out and follow those social distancing guidelines. So the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that that be provided for individuals.
“There’s other problems too. I mean, no access to sanitation, no access to restrooms, sinks, etc. That becomes incredibly problematic for people to be able to protect themselves. People deserve an equal opportunity to protect themselves against a global pandemic.”
There was a dumpster and portable bathrooms at the campsite. Humbert said the dumpster was removed this morning, but did not answer when the portable restrooms were removed.
Humbert said the City of Reno and RPD started giving individuals notice to vacate 10 days ago.
The notice said, “The City has been receiving complaints through the City of Reno-Reno Direct Service Request system, as well as to the Reno City Council from area businesses citing an increase in vandalism, trespassing, and other public decency violations as well as concerns for public health.”
Additionally, Travis Warren, the public information officer for RPD, said there have been severe crimes committed within the camp during the COVID-19 pandemic, including battery with a deadly weapon, sexual assault and a homicide.
Possessions left behind
Police began telling people to vacate the camp completely at 8 a.m., according to advocates on the scene. Many people who were displaced ended up at Brodhead Memorial Park, across the river.
Stephen Frazier has been living at the camp since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said he was not able to retrieve all of his belongings today.
“I left a lot of stuff, stuff that came from my family. It was given to me by my family. It’s not stuff that would be like value to anybody else, but it was invaluable to me, and I had to leave it,” Frazier said.
Frazier said he was able to bring a tent, his wallet, several wristwatches and a couple pairs of pants. He said he had to leave his son’s first comic book and letters.
Tim, who did not want to provide his last name, was also displaced today. He said he spent a few nights at the Reno Events Center make-shift shelter but he did not like it. The shelter also does not allow people to stay inside during the day.
“The process of waiting to get in, waiting for the lights to go out, people made noise as soon as the lights went out,” Tim said. “The worst thing about it was we walked around all day with nowhere to go, nowhere to sit.”
Tim and Frazier were sitting on the lawn at Brodhead Memorial Park after the cleanup of the camp, and both were uncertain where they would be sleeping tonight.
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.