Mayor Hillary Schieve said Tuesday she wants an emergency declared in relation to homelessness in the area, particularly for encampments along the Truckee River. She said environmental contamination and health hazards associated with the encampments need to be immediately addressed. The city therefore is going to again ramp up cleanup efforts and enforce no-camping ordinances at City Plaza and along the Truckee River.
The move goes against some CDC guidelines addressing homeless encampments, but city officials are saying enough is enough. They have documented 3,009 campers this year, and waste collection is at record highs.
“The safety issues associated with the encampments have really grown and outweigh the safety considerations related to COVID,” said Arlo Stockham, assistant city manager.
He cited the month of April when the city stopped cleanups of homeless camps. Conditions became unsafe. There was a murder under the Wells Avenue overpass. More recently, fires started at camps have caused public safety concerns.
“Reno Firefighters are dealing with a significant increase in human caused fires among our vulnerable homeless population,” the Reno Firefighters Association posted Sept. 21 on Twitter. “These fires consist of warming and cooking fires, and fires that are impacting residents and businesses.”
Stockham said the city will resume “clean and safe operations,” particularly along the river.
“It’s gotten really bad; it’s gotten really unsafe,” he said. “Sparks and Washoe are doing the same, and that in some ways has pushed more [people] to the City of Reno.”
Comments at yesterday’s City Council meeting made clear city officials are now more openly pushing for the cleanups. Officials in the past have sent mixed messages on the issue of camp sweeps and citations issued by the Reno Police Department.
City spokesperson Jon Humbert in June said it was Reno Police discretion to issue citations to those living along the river near Wells Avenue, but homeless advocates said the city rarely if ever has issued citations.
“It’s dangerous. It’s a public safety hazard. It’s long overdue.”
Now, Mayor Schieve said the river is in crisis and something needs to be done. She called for an emergency declaration in the hope of receiving additional funding to deal with the problem. (Stockham said he was unsure if this was possible.)
“People sleeping along the river is not safe, and we can no longer allow that to happen,” Schieve said. “It’s dangerous. It’s a public safety hazard. It’s long overdue.”
Service requests to the city, as well as hazardous waste calls, are spiking, city officials said. The city was hit with hazard violations six times by the Washoe County Health District. Citizen complaints about conditions at encampments led to the district issuing the violations.
The city has also received 1,300 requests for service related to homeless camps.
“The waste collection has been a little startling,” said the city Senior Management Analyst Cynthia Esparza. “Coming into this position, I’ve never seen that much collection for yards of waste. I actually had to Google what that amounts to.”
It’s 2,209 yards of waste and 416 gallons of biohazard.
City approves resolution for new emergency shelter at Governor’s Bowl Park
The Reno City Council approved on Tuesday a resolution to build an emergency shelter for those experiencing homelessness in the region. The shelter is slated to be constructed at Governor’s Bowl Park. It is scheduled to be built early next near.
“It basically takes up the whole ball field,” Stockham said. “We are far from alone in dealing with these challenges right now. This is kind of the norm, and it’s worse in many cities.”
The structure will cost about $100 a square foot. Site preparation will be the bulk of the expense, Stockham told the city council.
Time is of the essence with winter approaching, Stockham added, but the first deadline to start construction in time for winter has passed. That means the facility will not be in place before cold temperatures set in. It will be located near the new temporary emergency shelter.
The project will be funded by CARES Act money from the federal government. The city will share the cost with Sparks and Washoe County.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.