By Jenny Brekhus, Reno City Councilwoman
The growing number of unsheltered persons is challenging Reno and urban areas across the country. The causes are as complex as the diverse personal stories of those experiencing homelessness. Housing affordability, while a separate issue, contributes to the cost burdens that too many households experience. After eight years on the Reno City Council, however, I have come to view the issue of homelessness as having two distinct aspects.
First, Reno must manage the impacts of homelessness on our parks, along the river corridor, and on city streets and sidewalks. These shared spaces must remain safe and inviting to the public.
A related concern is the public safety danger posed by homeless encampments. Ward 1 residents have shared frightening videos with me of nighttime fires putting structures and lives at risk in riverfront neighborhoods and West Fourth Street trailer parks. Last winter our fire chief showed me a map identifying the locations of recent encampment fires, illustrating just how widespread the risk had become.
Other than preparing for and participating in Council meetings, I devote the most time to responding to Ward 1 residents’ concerns about encampments. More often than not, the City’s response is to require the relocation or removal of camps, followed by site clean-up, including of biohazards like human waste and used syringes. Encampments along the Truckee River threaten our drinking water and the health of the river corridor.
And while violence in and around homeless encampments is rare, it is also a concern. Most tragic is the plight of unsheltered persons suffering and dying in encampments.
The courts have ruled that government can relocate camps when shelter bed space is available, as there was, for example, for a period this summer when space was available for 33 out of 39 days. However, even with the ability to offer a person space in a shelter, the increase in encampments outpaced the City’s capacity to respond, despite the growing financial commitment the City has made to addressing encampments over the past two years.
Without additional funding, Reno and the region will remain unable to adequately address the issue of homelessness.”
Acknowledging that managing encampments is primarily a City responsibility, I’ll now turn to the other major aspect of the homelessness issue: preventing it when possible and helping persons who are homeless attain shelter.
While many people expect the City of Reno to address this issue, it is the government entity with the fewest resources for tackling the core issues and finding long-term solutions. I’ve come to realize that the issue is so encompassing that all levels of government – city, county, state and federal – must raise their commitment to reach solutions.
My history working on homeless issues in Reno goes back to 1998 when, as a city planner, I was assigned to draft a zoning ordinance for the regulation of homeless shelters. I was surprised to learn then that no publicly-supported emergency shelter existed.
Several years later, under the leadership of former Mayor Bob Cashell, the Community Assistance Center (CAC) was built on Record Street. There was, however, uneasiness at city hall about Reno taking on the lead role. This is because in Nevada, county governments receive state and federal funding for social services and are thus much better positioned to provide services to people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. In southern Nevada, homeless services are a regional focus of Clark County. When Washoe County would not address the need for an emergency shelter, Reno stepped into this role and led the way in paying for construction and operation of the CAC.
Reno continued to provide primary financial support for operation for the CAC until the Great Recession, when Reno laid off about a third of its workforce, including many public safety staff. With the downturn, Washoe County upped their fiscal commitment and today pays $2.8 million to Reno’s $900,000 and Sparks’ $400,000 for shelter operations. Despite this fiscal arrangement, and though Washoe County has recently taken on responsibility for sheltering service-receptive women and their children, Reno remains the lead entity for operation of the emergency shelters for men, which constitute the majority of the region’s unsheltered population.
Even when the CAC was built, there was growing nationwide acknowledgement that the root causes of homelessness – stagnant wages, employment insecurity, health care costs, housing affordability, trauma, drug addiction and mental health illness – require a comprehensive approach. The U.S. Veterans Administration, with a health care system that includes social workers and provides housing vouchers and other assistance, has largely eliminated homelessness among the population it serves. Their model shows homelessness can be solved.
The federal government has not extended this commitment to the general population. With the exception of economic rescue spending during the Great Recession and now during the pandemic, the federal government has instead retreated over the past 40 years from programs to help local governments respond to problems like homelessness. Perhaps the most realistically impactful contributions toward reducing homelessness that one can hope for from the federal government are expanded healthcare under Medicaid and similar programs to broaden coverage for mental illness.
At a state level, Nevada’s low taxes, and the limited amount of time the Legislature spends in session, constrain the state’s ability to craft policy and provide resources to address homelessness. In 2019, the Legislature did not dedicate any new resources for this purpose and in the special pandemic session this past summer, budget cuts were made to programs that provide services like behavioral health that benefit the homeless population.
In 2021, the Legislature will struggle with the pandemic’s impact on its revenues and will be more focused on state budget areas like education than on solving issues perceived as local, like homelessness. Reno residents who want to see homelessness addressed should let their state representatives understand the importance of the issue to them as constituents, and urge legislators to provide assistance.
Given these state and federal limitations, the best short-term option for addressing Reno’s growing homelessness crisis is to seek assistance from Washoe County. The County Commission has at their discretion an unexercised revenue source known as the General Services Tax, a tax on vehicle registrations that could generate approximately $14 million a year.
I have asked the Reno City Council to formally request that Washoe County institute this tax. Doing so could provide dedicated funding for Washoe County to, for example, employ additional social workers to bring unsheltered people in from the streets, pay for transitional housing so people can leave emergency shelters, and provide job-seeking assistance, mental health counseling and addiction programs.
In addition to asking Washoe County to tap this source of funding, Reno must also look to Washoe County to take on the lead role for the provision of services to the homeless, including the operation of emergency shelters for men. Washoe County is the local government entity responsible for providing social and health services to Washoe County residents, and it should lead the region’s efforts to address homelessness.
I challenge anyone, including my political opponent who has made homelessness his signature campaign issue, to specify how the needle can move on this issue without additional dedicated financial resources. While philanthropy, the non-profit sector and faith-based organizations are important contributors, the magnitude of the challenge is beyond their capacity to close the gap.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an urgent push to add emergency shelter space both to socially distance people needing shelter space and to serve the growing number of persons who find themselves on the streets or the Truckee River after losing their housing due to income or job loss. It is imperative that the Board of County Commissioners create this revenue stream to provide services at existing, and any additional, facilities. It is simply not within the City of Reno’s ability to do so without deep cuts to core services like public safety, the maintenance of critical infrastructure, or parks and recreation programs.
Without additional funding, Reno and the region will remain unable to adequately address the issue of homelessness.
I am confident that many Ward 1 residents who contact me about encampments would be supportive of targeted public investment to help these members of our society to relocate from our public spaces and get the assistance that they need to move on to better living conditions.
Jenny Brekhus has been twice elected to represent Ward 1 on the Reno City Council and is running for a third term in the Nov. 3 general election. Prior to pursuing a seat on the Reno City Council, Jenny worked as a planner for the City of Reno and temporarily, with the Nevada Housing Division. She has also taught urban planning classes at both TMCC and UNR. Jenny holds dual masters’ degrees from the University of New Mexico in public administration and community and regional planning.
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