Operation of a new, temporary homeless shelter began Tuesday evening after being waylaid by a temporary restraining order associated with a lawsuit filed by a local business owner.
Operation of the shelter—along with the Our Place and Washoe County Community Assistance shelters—will bring the capacity to serve houseless individuals in the region to a total of about 600. City officials say this number meets the current estimate of people seeking shelter, out of an estimated 1,000 people currently living houseless.
The new shelter space comprises several tent and shade structures. It is located on East Fourth Street on land being leased by the city from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. During a media tour of the space Tuesday morning, Acting Assistant City Manager Arlo Stockham said the shelter went from idea to construction in the span of 10 days.
Media members were originally scheduled to tour the tent facilities on Aug. 5, but the tour was cancelled after a $90,000 lawsuit was filed against the city and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority—which owns the land upon which the temporary shelter was being constructed—and the Community Homelessness Advisory Board, which voted to approve the new emergency shelter location on July 20.
The suit was filed by Scott Peterson, owner of Wells RV & Boat Storage located next door to the site. It alleges that the City of Reno did not follow zoning laws or proper protocol for notifying surrounding property owners in its fast-tracking of the project.
According to Stockham, while the restraining order preventing its operation has been lifted, a hearing in the case will take place within 60 days. He said he feels confident that the city will prevail in the litigation. He said he believes Second Judicial District Court Judge David Hardy’s decision to allow the shelter to open is “indicative of that.”
“The case is basically challenging the city’s right to erect an emergency facility,” Stockham said. “They’re arguing that a special use permit process—which would be required for a permanent facility—should be required now. But that process takes approximately four months, and we’d be defeating our purpose of sheltering people if we had to go through that process.”
But the City of Reno is looking for a longer-term site, and it may not be far from the current temporary one on Fourth Street. One location the city is considering is Governor’s Bowl Park on East Seventh Street. Some officials are saying the City of Sparks needs to provide its own shelter for those experiencing homelessness in Sparks.
“What we need to do is find a longer-term site that’s larger and more suitable for additional sheltering,” Stockham said. “We’re going to need to make some decisions around October time and start assembly of a new, larger facility then—or else winterize this facility, if we don’t have a longer-term site ready to go.”
At this point, deciding if Governor’s Bowl Park will work as a more permanent site could depend on whether or not it gets hung up on zoning or planning issues, City of Reno Public Information Officer Jon Humbert said in an email response to This Is Reno.
“The Governor’s Bowl is a very promising one, but you probably saw there are other properties for sale,” Stockham said. “So, if the Governor’s Bowl continues to get tied up—we’d look at purchasing a property.”
The current shelter is funded through CARES Act dollars allocated to the City of Reno for the purpose of sheltering its houseless population under social distancing guidelines.
It’s a problem, Stockham noted, that many other cities have been dealing with since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It’s really a longstanding challenge Reno has had—and we’re not alone,” he said. “Cities all over the country are grappling with this. The homeless population is significant and expected to rise as a result of COVID. You add that to essentially doubling the space requirements—which is necessary for COVID safety—and cities all over the country are scrambling for emergency solutions.”
Stockham said other cities using tent structures as a temporary solution include Sacramento and San Francisco. He said, “none of the solutions” for sheltering houseless people are perfect but that the city felt a tent structure was superior to placing people in hotels—an option he said is “really, extremely costly.”
The lease on the land from TMWA, as well as the lease of the tent structures from a Las Vegas company,is set to expire in four months. Stockham said the city hopes to have a longer-term solution in place by then. The tent structures would have to be winterized in two months’ time if another shelter is not in place.
“So, certainly, this will not go on a year,” Stockham said. “I would expect significantly shorter, but that will really depend on site acquisition.”
City considers new facility an improvement over Events Center
“This is what 20,000 square feet looks like,” Stockham said while giving the media a tour of the new tent structures. “This is going to be enough for about 170 people with social distancing.”
That’s roughly the number of people who’ve been sheltering at the Reno Events Center since the onset of COVID-19-related lockdowns in mid-March.
That space, which is leased long-term by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority is no longer an option, Stockham said.
“Now that the hotels are reopened and most of the businesses are reopened—they’ve been pressing us, you know, for the better part of the summer to get out and find a new site,” he said. “We were hoping we would have had the Governor’s Bowl secured by now and we could have moved directly there.”
Stockham described the new heavy-framed, vinyl tents as “not permanent but better than nothing,” adding that the city can add industrial fans near the ceiling and roll up walls to vent them if they get too hot in the summer heat.
The shelter, will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Governor’s Park and its shade structures will be available between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The new shelter also has a shower trailer that contains six showers and two bathrooms. A row of porta-potties stands facing it. More porta-potties are installed in Governor’s Park and near an open-air tent structure designated as an area for meals to be passed out.
The Shelter is primarily expected to house men. Women and families can find shelter at Our Place on Galletti Way—though they’ll also be given space at the new facility, should they need it.
Because the new space is temporary, the city opted to bring over only mattresses rather than frames and bunk beds that had been moved from the old shelter to the Events Center in March.
Stockham said the city will also continue its “Clean and Safe” operation—a program that focuses on cleaning refuse from homeless camps. The “cleanups” require people living in the areas for which they’re designated to pack up and move any belongings they don’t want to be disposed of.
“But we’re not going to be able to enforce the camping regulations, like no camping in the parks or in the corridor,” Stockham said.
He said houseless individuals in designated cleanup areas will be allowed to move back into them after these operations.
“We need to do the necessary cleanup, but essentially they can come back,” he said. Our longer-term focus, and it’s a very important one, is we really need sufficient shelter space for every unsheltered person for their benefit and the city’s benefit.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.